We Need to Talk about Education – A personal view from the Chair
Tom Sealy – November 2020
These are odd times for governors. At this school we governors have prided ourselves on our close working relationship with the school. We have approached our monitoring role by actually being in the place and experiencing life in the classrooms at first hand. We now find ourselves excluded from this method of working by a virus. At the same time as this restriction has hampered our ability to make first hand, informed judgements, we have been buried under an avalanche of guidance and reminders of our responsibilities from every Tom, Dick and DfE in the education business. Some of this e-paper snowstorm is valuable and pertinent to the particular needs of our small and rather special school, but it needs to be sifted out by hours of reading. Unfortunately, much of this virtual bumph is couched in such opaque language and insider terminology, not to mention freshly minted acronyms, that finding the nuggets of relevant material is a very hard slog. All this leads me to suppose ‘the powers that be’ must be worrying that we are taking a pandemic opportunity to bunk off from our responsibilities.
Or, perhaps, the reason for this increase in verbiage is self-survival on their part? I feel a microscopic twinge of sympathy for the hordes in the bureaucratic layer cake that sits atop the schools. Many of these people must feel their reason to be is a little blurred at present and they may be asking, ‘What actually is the point of me?’ The truth is schools have achieved wonders after being thrown totally on their own devices for the last nine months; left to make decisions as more befuddled rules, conflicting guidance and seemingly insane instructions are passed down the layers by those unable to interfere directly with the sharp end (I’m not sure that a layer cake has a sharp end, it’s more of a soggy bottom. Time to ditch the Bake-off metaphor).
The lockdown has proved the quality of the people who do the actual work of educating children, the staff in schools. Our school is small. The staff have to cover all the roles and responsibilities that a large school would have dozens of people to share. From the moment of lockdown, the tiny group at Anstey proved they were up to the task. They put the children at centre, as always, and quickly acted on plans to keep their charges safe, happy and receiving an education. The staff adapted as circumstances changed, updated the invidious paperwork promptly, and managed to keep smiling through it all.
Thrown on to their own devices, schools have made good judgements, more speedily, and tailored to the individual needs of those in their care. There has been real self-management based on local needs at Anstey. True, the guidance from outside has increased, but in the end the leadership has made the final, practical decisions. And it works.
But where does a governing body fit into this new normal? Much of the work of a governing body is what is euphemistically called oversight; checking-up on. We check that the school is adhering to various rules and regulations, statutory and recommended, put in place higher up the food chain; finance, health and safety, special educational needs, safeguarding, the national curriculum et al. We are basically filling a gap left by the lack of a fully functional local education authority, local government having been increasingly de-funded by central government (I am old enough to remember when Hertfordshire had Divisional Education Offices. As a head teacher I could telephone a local officer who had real knowledge of the local schools and who would actually visit the school and offer practical help). Beyond the governors’ box-ticking oversight there is the far more odious responsibility for managing complaints. This is a minefield strewn with legal procedures and is every governor’s nightmare. We are trained for this role, of course, with perhaps eight hours in a stuffy room, or more likely these days, a few hours on a remote learning platform. Unless a governing body is lucky enough to have an individual with a background in the law, come a complaint that is not trivial or absolutely straight forward, we are stuffed.
Which brings us to the core problem of governing bodies; we are voluntary, unqualified bodies expected to play the part that a specialist degree toting careerist would ordinarily be cast in. Somewhere along the line the person in the street who wished to help and support their local school has become a potpourri of lawyer, social worker, educationalist, statistics expert, health and safety officer, accountant and bureaucrat. Rather than ensuring that children are safe on the difficult road to becoming adults with fulfilled and happy lives, governors are checking to ensure that the school policy on finger trapping conforms to the latest guidance (yes, our finger trapping policy is up to date).
Education, the theory and practice, is cyclical, not in the sense that it runs through cycles of improvement on an ever upward spiral but, because it is a very political football, it simply goes round in circles. Each new government, keen to appear to be actually doing something useful, does a volte-face on the newly ousted failures and launches a spanking new education policy. And, because governments are made up of people who rarely have a background in education, and because the minister is in place as he’s a mate of the PM, the only options for change are to liberalise or formalise. One blessing of a pandemic is that this madness is put on hold as all government ministers are too busy making millions from selling out of date PPE stock.
Soon, education will return to the circling from ‘get ‘em streamed, tested and ready for the job market’’, to ‘let ‘em climb trees and do what they like’. Neither of these ideas works. As any good teacher will tell you, education is about mixed media and not about dogma. Somewhere around that circle is the right approach for each individual child and the good practitioner will choose the right tricks from a very large bag.
So, what do I think governors should be doing, now and when the vaccine has done its job? Talking about the purpose of education, not the nuts and bolts.
This school has an ethos that values childhood and personal growth. It is about helping children to become rounded, fulfilled and happy members of a caring society. If a school has these ideas as its core, if the school is a safe, loving place to be, then the learning goals will fall into place without the ever-present extraneous stresses.
Oops! I think I might be veering off into a diatribe against testing small children. Better stop here.
But, let’s talk about the purpose of education…
… and help children to stop trapping fingers.
The Annual Governors’ Awards Dinner and Dance by Tom Sealy
Good evening, and welcome to the end of year governors’ bash. As I stand here, it appears to me that the school year is getting shorter. Or is it that, as you get older, time speeds up? Or was I just not paying attention? Anyway, here we are at the end of another year. The gathered glitterati have endured the rubbery chicken drowned in an anonymous sauce, the vulcanised panna cotta has been consumed, the plates have been cleared, and it’s time for the awards. A mixed bag this year, mostly gongs for success, but with a few brick-bats to be flung.
The first award is for ‘Most Successful Innovation’. Opening the envelope should be the inspector handling our last Ofsted inspection. Unfortunately, Mrs Brock cannot be with us due to her duties frightening the pants off other schools, but I’m sure she would endorse the award going to…The Early Years Unit. What a success!
The staff had given up swathes of their Summer break and moved mountains, or at least some very heavy furniture, as the infant room and outdoor area were transformed into a very special environment for the youngest children. These children arrived in September to a finished, exciting setting in which they could thrive and learn. Some stuffy governors visited, observed, and reported to their colleagues that they were dead chuffed. Visiting early years experts from the outside world (beyond Buntingford) were impressed. The children loved it. So, our heartfelt thanks to all those who worked on the project and those who work down ‘that end’, the most important end of education.
Onto the second award. This is always furiously contested by those eligible to receive it, but this year there is a clear winner, streets ahead of the crowd. The award for ‘The Most Waste of Time for the Governing Body’ is…
Academisation. This award has been won many times by various Secretaries of State for their sweeping changes to education predicated on badly thought through whims. However, this year, a particular initiative has taken the prize. As the year started schools were reprieved from being forced to become academies. On closer inspection of the mealy-mouthed press releases it was realised that, if a school was seen to be under-performing, the Regional Schools’ Commissioner (def. un-elected person with sweeping powers) can instruct the school to convert. Under-performance is based mainly on the narrow data from testing. This means the tested cohort can have a large effect on the assessment of the whole school’s performance. Bear with me… The government believes that an academy per se is better than a local authority school. There is no statistical evidence for this, but the Regional Commissioner’s first question when looking at a school needing improvement is likely to be ‘Why didn’t you investigate becoming an academy, you silly sausages?’. Actually, he’d probably omit any charcuterie references, but to cover our backs, a large amount of time and effort was spent this year on attending meetings with local governors and head teachers, and discussions at our own governing body, investigating a possible Multi Academy Trust in the local area. The at long last upshot of which, in view of there being no financial or leadership advantage to our school, the governors decided not to take the matter any further. We had gone through the whole process merely to placate an amorphous threat (creating fear is routine government education policy these days). We stuffy governors, of course, should expect to do these things, but it is a complete waste of Mrs Myer’s time, whose work-load is quite enough already, thank you very much.
Got a bit carried away there, must be the champagne…
I see a few of you are asleep and others are scraping their chairs towards the exits so I’ll skip to the last award, which is ‘Staff Member of the Year’. My goodness, this is a particularly hefty envelope… Oh! I can’t possibly read all these out, we’ll be here for ages, and Mrs Modeste’s limousine is booked for midnight. There’s enough here for a football te… This award is for The Team. Anstey School has strong leadership and individuals with many skills, but it is the way the whole staff have worked together over a year of growth and change that impresses most. Our thanks to them all.
The coming academic year sees more changes, with growing pupil numbers, new staff, re-arranged teaching groups, and a wall that will move 87.6 centimetres to the West. As chair of governors, I must say I’m very excited about that last one…
I look forward to next year’s awards.
What the Governor Saw, a Personal View Tom Sealy December 2016
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a new prime minister in possession of a government, must be in want of a radical education initiative.
Every teacher and governor in the country would have been holding their breath waiting to find out what would happen as Theresa replaced David. A new administration must make an impact and show it means business - to continue in the same vein is political suicide. Schools are easy targets. They rarely fight back, and changes of government (weirdly conveniently) always fall at times when educational standards are in terminal decline. We hear the cries, Something must be done! There must be a radical overhaul of everything that was accepted as sound educational practice last week!
It didn’t happen. Luckily for teachers struggling with embedding the last shed-load of initiatives, Theresa, her ministers and the mandarins of Whitehall had their collective hands full of the spillings from the poisoned chalice of Brexit. There hasn’t been time yet to bash the education service, except to introduce the ludicrous notion that having more elitist grammar schools will solve the huge problem of social divisiveness and mobility.
There was one other thing. The plan to force every school to become an academy was, for the time being, dropped. This news was received with a mixture of joy and anger. Joy that several more levels of bureaucracy, and the possibility that Philip Green might be running your school, has for the time being gone away. The anger was at the waste of time as head teachers and governors spent hundreds of hours in seminars, briefings and reading through interminable, incomprehensible documentation, only to be told it wasn’t going to happen.
What pleasure then, after the madness, for a governor to spend a morning in school on ‘observation’. At Anstey there are usually three planned visits a term, the governor spending a session or whole day observing an aspect of the children’s education. The observation is usually linked to a part of the School Development Plan, but should always include a look at issues from the post-Ofsted plan (The provision for the early years and children’s writing).
It transpired this term that both Kate Oxley and myself wanted to look at the changes made to the Foundation Stage. We made our visits and wrote our reports for the governing body without knowledge of the other’s impressions. They are very similar. I’m going to lift comments verbatim from Kate’s report, partly because I’m lazy enough to cut and paste whenever possible, and partly because Kate hits the nail on the head:
"I was very impressed with how long several children were able to concentrate on their chosen activity (in some cases for over an hour) without being interrupted by being asked to change to some other activity. I was also impressed by the quality and amount of extended conversations between children, and between children and adults. The environment is calm and orderly, with well organised and accessible resources, both inside and outside. Staff supported children’s learning through questioning and discussion, and engaged children through, for example, song and story. Classroom routines are well established and behaviour managed effectively. Overall, I felt that the enormous effort involved in re-modelling the classroom and the outdoor environment, and buying new resources has led to a significant improvement in the children’s early year’s experiences, and congratulate all involved."
And I wrote:
"There is a feeling of calm in the unit. The children are confident in the setting. The children were respectful of each other. Behaviour, barring a couple of squabbles, was very good, and dealt with by questions and discussion. The children are learning physical control and coordination through their handling of equipment, there is always the expectation that they will see to tasks for themselves such as the preparation of their snack, having complete control over their craft activities, and clearing up. The guided activities showed children being attentive to each other and speaking with confidence. The repetition of counting and word work showed the beginnings of number and reading awareness. The line between the indoor and outdoor environments has been nicely blurred. It is very apparent that the children are rapidly and successfully learning important social skills. I have only praise for what Nic and Mel are doing in this area. I think they make a good team."
Amy and her team put in an enormous amount of work during the Summer break and the unit was ready for the start of this term, an achievement in itself. It is also impressive that in visiting the setting just after half-term it gives the impression of a much longer established environment – this is in thanks largely to the way the staff working there have taken on the project and ran with it.
So, as Britain cuts its moorings with Europe and leakily floats off into the Atlantic, as Nigel Farage becomes the xenophobic global face of our nation, and as a luridly orange man moves into the White House who purports to care for the blue-collar worker but spends his non-taxed billions on gold elevator interiors, let’s take comfort in the fact our little school is doing rather well.
What the Governor Saw – A Personal View 8th July 2016
How things change. When I last seated myself to write one of these things I was a happy-go-lucky foot-soldier in the voluntary army of school governance. I felt free to rail with impunity against officers, the inadequacies of Ofsted and the short sightedness of government policy. This very piece would have given you my views on the idea of Academisation.
Wilfrid Dimsdale had given notice of his intention to resign as chair of governors well in advance. We knew, as he led the governors through the Ofsted inspection, that it was on the cards. In the end he left one meeting earlier because of illness (from which, happily, he is making a speedy recovery, and he will remain a governor). The upshot of this was a vacancy for officer training, and such is the vagaries of fate and the oddities of circumstance that I seem to have been promoted from the ranks, and am now chair of governors.
Weak military metaphors aside, I cannot let Wilfrid’s years of work for the school go unremarked. His name first turns up in governors’ minutes on the 19th October 1976, nearly forty years ago. He held the office of Chair from the early noughties up to this May, a period when our school, along with many others, struggled to find a permanent head teacher (you would need two hands to count the number of fingers representing the heads of Anstey School this century). Many of these heads were very good, most of them were very experienced practitioners, but the change of focus each brought and the constant search for a longer term solution was unsettling - a school needs stability. Wilfrid had an un-flagging determination that we would sort out the problems and find the right person - I’m sure many of us would have surrendered after so many meetings with local authority officers and advisors, or we would have raised the white flag after continually re-writing person and job specifications. This is not to mention observations of candidates’ teaching, obtaining references, holding interviews and finally making the appointments. This effort would then be followed by brief periods of euphoria and after a year or two, a depressing realisation that it had to be done again. All this plus leading the governors through three Ofsted inspections. Wilfrid just kept going. He has been and remains an unreserved, dogged champion of Anstey school (however, I did notice when trawling through the old minutes that he missed a meeting on the 13th October 1992 without tendering apologies – I have reported this to the County Council). Despite such infringements of protocol Wilfrid really does deserve our heartfelt appreciation – and a rest. Actually, one of the few bonuses of the period was watching a frazzled Wilfrid having rather restrained temper tantrums, rarely aimed at an individual but nearly always against some meaningless pile of bumph or ill thought-out legislative document.
Yes, huge thanks Wilfrid. Not one for fuss, he’ll be so embarrassed to read this.
And so another academic year is nearly over, during which it has been an increasing pleasure to visit and help out in the school. It is a bustling, busy, happy place, every member of staff and child making it a special school to be in. Particularly pleasing is the number of peripatetic teachers and volunteers who take part in the life of the school – there is always somebody signing in to enrich the children’s experiences. I once offered to go home as we were all jostling for space – I got a funny look from Mrs Myers – nobody gets to skive off (while on the subject of volunteers, we’re going to need a couple of parent governors next term to bring the army up to strength – please give it some thought).
The Autumn term will see some changes. Valued members of staff will have moved on, new staff will be settling in and the physical and organisational changes needed to make the school a special place for early years’ education will continue.
Schools are always works in progress, always needing to change and adapt, but there is now a stable core, strong management and a sense of purpose to Anstey School. Lots to do, but things look good.
Oh, and what do I think about Academisation?
There is no such word.
What the Governor Saw: A Personal View 15 May 2015
So your child gets home from school, and in the pursuit of good parenting you ask about their day. If you’re lucky enough to be blessed with a girl then you might get a brief list of the subjects covered. If you have a boy you will probably get “Dunno”. And if you have a boy like either of mine were, you will get a grunt and a look that tells you that a personal space has been invaded. After forty years in education, and talking to countless parents kept in the dark by their off-spring, I can assure you that this is absolutely normal. A great deal will have happened on any given day but just like a grown up coming home from work children need a bit of space and time to slip back into ‘home mode’.
One of the jobs of being a school governor is to visit the school regularly, see it in action and report back to the rest of the governors. I help out with the Wise Owls on Tuesday mornings. It’s usually literacy and numeracy, but on my last visit the teachers had planned a whole school session, all the kids together taking part in a range of activities based around the human body as part of the current topic, Diversity. I was to there to help individual children but gradually I began taking notes as I became more and more impressed by what the teachers were up to. Because it was a ‘doing’ morning there would be no evidence of what took place, no writing, no calculations in maths books. I thought at least I ought to report to the other governors.
But why not you?
The session started with that old favourite story Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes with the teacher pulling out the multi-cultural diversity in the story; there are lots of different children in the world but they’ve all got… After the story the children were given the opportunity to comment and discuss the story (throughout the morning the children were given time to make their points). They were then told about the activities they would cover during the morning and the reception children went off to do their first task (differentiation here: the teachers are constantly juggling the needs of different age groups).
I stayed with years 1 to 4 and because we’d been seated for a time the teacher led us in a performance of Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes. I botched my performance much to the amusement of several children. Then it was quiz time. In mixed age groups of three the children were given a sheet of facts about the human body and had to decide whether they were true or false. Some of the questions could be answered through common sense and discussion, some relied on general knowledge, and some could be answered through simple investigation – are there 27 bones in a human hand?. The three children I sat with showed intelligence, some surprising knowledge and an ability to work together. Then it was all back together and each group explaining why they’d decided on their answers. This led to a wide ranging exchange of ideas and knowledge led by the teachers which included the respiratory system including our need for oxygen, allergies, personal safety, health issues and the medical services, pregnancy, and my favourite - the volume of pee a human might produce in a life-time! When the subject of the circulation of blood came up we were made to hold one arm high in the air and the other down beside our body. After a few minutes we looked at our hands; I had one bright purple hand and the other a rather nasty shade of yellow. Your children have better pumps but the difference could still be seen; a simple but effective experiment. The children then went out to play and I went to lie down for a while…
After the break it was identify the organs time. Pictures of the heart, the lungs, the kidneys, the intestines, the brain and the liver had to be matched with the names and with a description of the function. Once again this was done in mixed age groups that came together to argue their decisions. The teachers then led the discussion onto what we do to keep these organs healthy; a good diet and exercise. Which led on to differences in proportion. The adults could reach over the tops of their heads and touch under their chins, the children could not – we are born with an almost full-sized brain. Various proportions of the body were compared, our fore-arms are the same length as our feet, our height is equal to our outstretched arms (some estimation in metres and centimetres here). Next - shoes off! Bit whiffy and warm – energy being expended. And while the shoes are off, what is it that controls our balance?
The whole morning finished off with a foot, diversity oddity. We were shown a photograph of Brazilian street children who had grown up without shoes. The toes were much more widely spaced, almost like hands.
It was a busy morning, noisy but industrious. The children were given time to think, time to talk, with a mixture of practical activities and teacher led discussions. I’m not going to pretend that they will remember all the facts, the teaching points - that’s not the point. The point is for this particular morning they were immersed in a learning environment that crossed subject boundaries and was stimulating and fun. They were learning to learn. It would have been easier for the teachers to sit the children down and do some sums, nothing wrong with that, but by mixing up the curriculum the learning was far more exciting.
So, next time the little darling arrives home from school and is unforthcoming, give a little rueful smile and be thankful they go to a school with such dedicated, hard working staff.