This much I know about…art, family, friends and the essential self

I have been a teacher for 30 years, a Headteacher for 15 years and, at the age of 54, this much I know about art, family, friends and the essential self.

Scotland at Easter is special. Every year since 2005 we have spent an Easter holiday week in Plockton, near Skye, with our friends the Davies family. They have three boys, we have two, and it just works a treat. The lads muck about, we eat great seafood, drink wonderful whisky and for seven days we leave the rest of the world behind. If you asked me to choose between a fortnight on a foreign beach in August or a rainy week in the Highlands in late March or early April, I would take the latter every time. Truly.

Late last March, however, was far from wet. By then the weather had begun to warm up, even on the Isle of Skye. And so it was, on the third day of our holiday, we set off to Inverie, via Mallaig. Now, Inverie is a full 18 miles from the nearest road; it lies at the heart of the wilderness called Knoydart and is only accessible by boat. Its pub, The Old Forge, had essentially opened for the season the day we arrived. The only lunchtime guests, we were treated to a feast of Guinness and langoustines. After we’d eaten we sat on the benches in front of the pub and drank a couple more beers awaiting our boat home.

It was a day to savour, with every one of our five senses.

As I sat at the window of the pub I took this photograph of the bay where we had landed a few hours earlier, looking back towards Mallaig.

What makes the image work, I think, is how it is framed within the window frame, accentuated by the small lampshade in the corner. A couple of weeks later, back in York, I asked my artist friend Marvin if he would reproduce the image as an oil painting. A month ago, he not only presented me with the finished artefact, he sent me six photographs which chart the development of the painting. As a writer, I am especially interested in the creative process, the u-turns, the changes of tack; the crossings out, one draft after another, until you settle on the final version of the work of art. And I am also moved by the art vs nature debate and whether we can ever, through art, resist the destructive force that the passage of time exerts upon us all.

Here are Marvin’s images, finished with a photograph of the framed painting, which adds yet another dimension to the framing effect of the original image.

I have thought a lot about that late March day in the last few weeks. Not surprising, really. And it has answered certain questions for me. I have been forced to ask myself: So, what is left when everything has been stripped away? What remains when what you thought defined you has disintegrated? What endures? What is your essential self?

Well, that afternoon last March, when both families sat in the remotest of pub windows, the sun beamed down upon us, the sea lay becalmed, the Guinness loosened our lunchtime chat and the rest of the year was ready to unfurl before us…that was elemental. Now, especially now, as winter descends upon us and the days shorten unreasonably, everything about that bright spring afternoon speaks to my very core. And it persists in that oil painting, where art resists nature, and a defining day is replayed in my mind’s eye every time I glance at my office wall.

If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

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This much I know about…how I have become a very boring teacher!

I have been a teacher for 30 years, a Headteacher for 15 years and, at the age of 54, this much I know about how I have become a very boring teacher!

I have become a very boring teacher. In the past I have had a few imaginative ideas about how to help students learn. The Janus-faced sentence is, perhaps, my best. Teaching genre theory via an analogy with the history of baked beans wasn’t bad, if a little lacking in nuance. And a kinaesthetic demonstration of the law of diminishing returns in the short run which involved each of my A level students pretending to be the marginal employee of a web-designing company which couldn’t afford the land and capital to expand, worked a treat. But beyond that, I spent 25 years flailing around, teaching KS4 and KS5 qualifications in Photography, Leisure & Tourism, Media Studies, English Literature, English Language, CoPE, Economics, General Studies and Mathematics relying upon my enthusiasm and force of character above any understanding of how children learn. Looking back, it is hard to believe any of my students learnt anything.

We all have a professional and moral obligation to try to become better teachers. For me, that has meant unlearning over the past five years a great deal of what I had assumed constituted effective teaching. So now I am a born-again devotee of textbooks, often reading through with students a difficult passage in a text book for two hours straight, explaining whatever they don’t understand; I set a homework every lesson for students to make notes from the textbook in an A3 exercise book ready for the next lesson, and I mark those notes; I model regularly, in real detail, the writing process; I ask students to copy from the board in real time as I model; I spend several lessons on a single topic until I am sure the students understand it; I teach tier 2 and tier 3 vocabulary in a profoundly thorough way; my slow-teaching approach means I never take for granted that students understand what I have taught them; I use videos of other teachers explaining concepts that I find hard to explain myself; and I low-stakes-test students frequently, having become an ardent fan of MCQS. Who would’ve thought it!?

The Holy Grail of teaching and learning is the self-regulated learner. The EEF Metacognition and Self-Regulation Guidance Report is a must read. It contains this description of Nathan.

Beyond teaching content thoroughly, our challenge is to teach the Nathans in our classrooms how to self-regulate, especially the Nathans who come from disadvantaged backgrounds; we cannot just assume they know how to manage their own learning. Callum, one of my Year 13 Economics class, secured an A* in this summer’s examinations. Back in May I asked my Years 13s what, of all the things I do when I teach, helps them learn most, and Callum replied, “When you read through the text book and explain it to us”. What I have learnt is that students enjoy lessons when they learn, not when they are entertained. And it is possible to teach in a way I perceive to be dull and the students still enjoy the lessons. In the Thank You card they gave me another student wrote: “Thank you for all your effort over the past year. I feel so much more confident in myself and economics. It’s been such a year with all the laughs we’ve all had.” Despite the radical changes in my teaching, one of the truths I still believe is that at the heart of good teaching and learning are positive, respectful teacher-student relationships.

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This much I know about…the importance of Huntington School’s Arts Festival

I have been a teacher for 30 years, a Headteacher for 15 years and, at the age of 54, this much I know about the importance of Huntington School’s Arts Festival.

I wish I could play a musical instrument. At primary school my attempt to master the violin came to a screeching halt soon after it began; at secondary, things fell flat between me and my trombone early on in our relationship and as an adult, life with a guitar was all fretful discord. I have one minor musical success: in Year 7 I was the drummer-boy soloist in the school musical, All the King’s Men, because I could sing, but then my voice broke and I became all Barry White in the Streford End.

As for art, I loved the idea of being an artist, but lacked the gumption to improve my limited skills. Dance? Well, I can jive, up to a point, and then it is pure Brighton Stomp. And treading the boards in serious drama has never been an attractive proposition; most of my first year of secondary school drama in 1975-6 was taken up with an improvisation of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody and I have never quite recovered.

Despite my lack of artistic success I support the arts at Huntington as much as I possibly can. In no way, shape or form do I claim to be some unfettered champion of the arts; the pressure upon schools to do well in the Ebacc subjects, coupled with the increased academic challenge of the new GCSEs, led to us reducing the curriculum space for other subjects. I feel a mild shiver of guilt at admitting such a thing, but, until you are a head teacher it is hard to understand just how far accountability measures affect decision-making.

Whilst some of our decisions over the past years may have disadvantaged the arts in our school, many other aspects of school life at Huntington positively promote the arts, none more so than our summer Arts Festival.  Like so many schools, the last two weeks of term are dedicated to school productions. For years, inspired by Richard Tither our erstwhile Director of Sixth Form, we would perform a musical, all done from scratch in a week. We now have an Arts Festival where Art, Dance, Drama and Music showcase their best work during the evening of the last Thursday of the year.

Last year’s Arts Festival began in the shadow of an impending OFSTED inspection; to huge applause, I announced to the cast that even if OFSTED rang we would not send 250 students back to classes – the show had to go on! This year, post-OFSTED, our Arts Festival adopted the theme of  “The Journey”, something that left enough creative space for each strand of the arts to interpret the theme as they wished.

You’ll find below the programme notes which give the merest hint of what went on in Art, Dance, Drama and Music. It is worth reading in full; it justifies the place of the arts in the school curriculum as well as anything I have read:

 

More than 250 students have been involved in the creation of what you will see and hear tonight. This event provides students who are passionate about the Arts a unique opportunity to experiment and create innovative and inspiring works of art, theatre, dance and music.

It exposes them to the challenges of making ideas reality and pushes them to be resilient in the face of critical appraisal.

For the performers, there is the adrenalin rush that comes with the live performance – the joy of success, and the camaraderie of working together. For the artists it is the chance to ‘think and make’ collectively, working towards a brief on a large scale. For the film makers, photographers, front of house team, sound teams, back stage, props and lighting team, the event provides opportunities to both develop skills and take responsibility for the smooth running of a large scale event.

It’s important to stress that the Arts festival is not just for students who want to go into the creative industries in the future; it is real world learning, learning that is relevant to everyone’s future working life.

More importantly still, it’s the stuff that makes us human.

Huntington Arts staff offer varied extracurricular opportunities throughout the year. The Arts Festival is just one of them. For academic study we are a body of experienced, teachers delivering great results in GCSE Art, Drama, Media and Music and A level Art, Drama, Media, Music, Music Technology and Photography.

Please come and talk to us at open evenings and parents evenings and learn about the relevance and value of what we do. We hope you have a great evening.

Liz Dunbar (on behalf of Paul Birch, Amanda Blunt, Buffy Breakwell, Tim Burnage, Karl Elwell, Cassie Garbutt, Caroline Hight, Luke Redhead, Sarah Sellars, Joao Vilar, Katy Welford, and Ian Wilson).

The following explains how the various teams have engaged with this year’s theme “The Journey”.

 

Main Hall – Art

‘Art speaks when words are unable to explain’

Over the 4 day festival period, students from years 7, 8, 9 and 10 have transformed the hall into both an installation space and a gallery.

Together we have explored the theme of ‘the journey’ in several ways.

The first explores the journey of ‘waste’. Approximately 91% of plastic products are not recycled. Tragically most ends up as rubbish in landfill or in our oceans.

One of our ideas has been to chart the journey of the plastic water bottle, the can, the crisp packet by reusing and reinventing them as objects of beauty.

Students have painted images of nature onto the rubbish to pointedly illustrate the vast scale of waste and to remind viewers of the fragility of our planet.

The second examines the differences between immigration and migration through a piece of installation art.

Students have created 3 tepees which are decorated with maps representing the imagined journeys immigrants might have taken.

Inside the tepees we have focused our attentions on the idea of migration by creating origami birds also made from maps.

In addition to works created in response to the festival’s theme, you will also see examples of this year’s work from GCSE and A level students, showcasing the diverse range of their creativity.

We hope you enjoy exploring the exhibition.

 

Library – Music

‘Crossing continents and cultural boundaries’

Music travels with the people who make it. It crosses continents and cultural boundaries. It leaves its fingerprints on the history of nations and reflects the actions of people through peace and through war.

Tonight you will hear aspects of the journey music has made in the last century, from the rhythms of samba and African music, to the heartfelt emotions of gospel.

We close with the journey that we all make at the end of every day……to bed and into our dreams.

Our starting point for every performance is driven by the impact the experience will have on the musicians involved.

To that end we shape all the performance material to enable all levels of musician to take part from the experienced ‘grade eighters’, to those with no training at all.

We have been supported all week in rehearsals by A Level Music alumni Hannah Bayliss, Will Gibbon and Rachael Langtree. It’s a Huntington tradition enabling us to be a little more ambitious with repertoire than we would otherwise be.

 

Sports Hall – Dance

Led by guest choreographer, Luke Redhead

The dance team will be taking audience members on a journey into the future, and exploring how technological innovations shape different aspects of human life.

The first source of inspiration comes from a Sadler’s Wells piece entitled ‘Gravity Fatigue’, where fashion and dance combine, exploring shape and form.

The second source of inspiration comes from a piece Luke created whilst living in Australia called ‘The Gainers’.

In keeping with the theme of technological innovation, Luke uses tap to create the percussive effects associated with the hard metal surfaces of industry. The music you will hear combines Scandinavian electro, with the flare of the Charleston.

 

Studio Theatre – Drama

‘Settle Down’ by Paul Birch

The theatre is the place where audiences see themselves and the world, reflected back’

 In preparation for the Arts festival guest writer Paul Birch led workshops with students which explored the idea of ‘The Journey’ through improvisation and storytelling.

This led to the identification of two major sub-themes students wanted to develop – ‘Dreams’ and ‘Segregation’.

Paul then went away to write the script. In the Arts Festival week students have had just 4 days to bring these words to life, working collaboratively to master physical skills, learn lines and empathise with and create their characters.

There are 35 individual speaking parts as well as choral speech for the entire company.

The play focuses on how dangerous and fearful refugee journeys can be. Whilst there is a strong resonance with Syria, it borrows elements from a range of stories and political situations rather than just one.

The performance incorporates a wide variety of styles, including abstract and physical theatre.

Our interpretation of ‘The Journey’ has been threefold.

It has been a creative journey where we start with nothing and end up with an imaginative play.

It has been a physical journey where our characters leave their home.

Finally, it has been an emotional journey where the thoughts and feelings of the characters evolve and change as the plot moves forward.

 

The following explains the role of the supporting teams within the Arts Festival

Media team

The Media team has two roles: to respond to the requests of each of the Arts Festival creative teams and to document the whole process.

In the past the Media team has worked closely with the Dance and Drama teams to create visual backdrops that create an atmosphere that helps to communicate the meanings behind the performances.

We also understand the monumental efforts that go into making the Arts Festival what it is.
Capturing the creative process on film enables teams to reflect on the event at a later date, something that performers cannot do in the ‘live’ moment.

The performances on the night will also be recorded and edited, allowing us to have something to show to students next year.

 

Front of House

The Front of House team help make the festival run smoothly. These are the first people you will meet when you arrive at the festival, and they will be on hand to guide you throughout the evening.

We couldn’t manage the event without them.

 

Samba band

When it is time to move on your next venue you will hear the pounding rhythms of Latin American percussion bringing the sights and sound of carnival from Brazil to the festival.

 

Technical team

Without a tech team concerts and live performances would be lost.

The ‘techies’ face the immense pressure of ensuring that the lighting, sound and video elements run smoothly on the night and that’s after the epic task of building the stage, setting up and testing the equipment and rehearsing the technical aspects of each performance.

Tech teams live in the shadows of a performance and only usually get a (stern) glance from the audience when something technical doesn’t quite go as planned.

They are there to make the performers look and sound great and if the show goes well then you probably won’t even notice them at all.

The skill of working well under pressure is essential, as is the ability to work as part of a team.

It’s learning for life.

 

The Arts Festival gives us something more than just an Arts Festival. It is a momentous event in our school’s calendar. It is ritual. It is about identity. It is about a sense of community. It is about belonging to something bigger than ourselves.

One last thought. The day after the Arts Festival I spoke at length with Liz Dunbar, our Subject Leader for Music. She has the highest expectations of anyone and everyone involved in the Arts Festival. I don’t think I understood what excellence in the arts meant until I met Liz. Over the years, she has helped students reach levels of mastery in performance which they themselves did not know they were capable of; I told her that she humbles me with her eternal insistence that things can always be better. And her utter refusal to accept anything less than our students’ best has rubbed off on her colleagues and our students – this year’s Festival was remarkable in its quality and the scope of its artistic ambition.

Importantly, Liz Dunbar understands that for so many of our students – in a socially diverse, inclusive, large, co-ed state comprehensive school, just like the one I attended decades ago – performing in the Arts Festival is the pinnacle of their school careers. Bar Freddie Mercury mania, I can remember none of my lessons in the summer of 1976, but I still know all the words to my final solo as the drummer-boy in Uckfield School’s summer show…

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This much I know about…hay bales, Heaney and what to do before the sun sets

I have been a teacher for 30 years, a Headteacher for 15 years and, at the age of 54, this much I know about hay bales, Heaney and what to do before the sun sets.

Two days ago I rose at 3.45 am and drove fifty miles to fish the Yorkshire Esk which weaves its way through the North Yorkshire moors. As the sun rose across Great Fryup Dale, what struck me was the legacy of this glorious summer; the hay has been baled and stands in golden cylinders, field after field.

Walking the river’s edge, the gilded landscape reminded me of Heaney’s poem “The Baler”, from his last collection, Human Chain. All aspects of Heaney’s art are there in this poem: his rural roots; the exactness of his observations; his economy of language; the apposite mythical allusions; the profundity beneath his understatedness. The shift in the last two stanzas is so subtle, you only grasp its seismic import after you have finished reading.

It is a poem for a man like me, who grew up in a house surrounded by hayfields, who spent his formative summers making dens with heaveable brick-shaped bales, who is in the August of his life – well beyond half-way – and who is wondering how on earth to spend his time before the sun sets. How did it get so late so soon?

 

THE BALER

All day the clunk of a baler
Ongoing, cardiac-dull,
So taken for granted

It was evening before I came to
To what I was hearing
And missing: summer’s richest hours

As they had been to begin with,
Fork-lifted, sweated-through
And nearly rewarded enough

By the giddied-up race of a tractor
At the end of the day
Last-lapping a hayfield.

But what I also remembered
As woodpigeons sued at the edge
Of thirty gleaned acres

And I stood inhaling the cool
In a dusk eldorado
Of mighty cylindrical bales

Was Derek Hill’s saying,
The last time he sat at our table,
He could bear no longer to watch

The sun going down
And asking please to be put
With his back to the window.

 

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This much I know about…an inept attempt to improve students’ literacy skills

I have been a teacher for 30 years, a Headteacher for 15 years and, at the age of 53, this much I know about an inept attempt to improve students’ literacy skills.

Implementation rules! About seven years ago we had a concerted effort to improve our students’ literacy skills. We scatter-gunned a number of different interventions, without an implementation plan or any idea how we were going to evaluate the impact of our interventions. One of the interventions was to provide a set of dictionaries for every single teaching room. The SENCO and I ostentatiously visited every teaching room, during lesson time, to deliver the small set of dictionaries per room. It had to be helpful, surely? The next day the Design Technology department saw the dictionaries as an opportunity to tailor-make a mini-bookshelf for each room, to accommodate the five sets of dictionaries they had been gifted. Seven years on, this very afternoon I took photographs of the pristine mini-bookshelves with their pristine, unopened dictionaries. I can’t remember what the dictionaries cost, but we have a lot of classrooms at Huntington, the biggest school in York. What I do know is the impact they had on our students’ literacy skills…

Just doing stuff is not enough. If you want to learn how to implement school improvement strategies effectively, click on the image below of the Education Endowment Foundation’s Putting Evidence to Work – A School’s Guide to Implementation. You just might help your students make better progress and save yourself a ton of money!

 

 

 

Posted in Research, School Leadership, Teaching and Learning | 2 Comments

This much I know about…solving the teacher recruitment and retention crisis

I have been a teacher for 30 years, a Headteacher for 15 years and, at the age of 53, this much I know about solving the teacher recruitment and retention crisis.

For a long time now I have been articulating this very simple argument:

  • We can take it as a given that we all want pupils to make good progress in their learning.
  • It is generally accepted that the quality of teaching is the most influential factor in determining the rate at which pupils make progress in their learning – broadly speaking, the better the teaching, the more progress pupils make over time.
  • The new curriculum at primary and the new specifications at GCSE & A level are significantly more academically challenging than their predecessors.
  • It follows, logically, then, that the best thing for our pupils is to be taught by well qualified, highly motivated, hard-working, happy, healthy, well trained, expert teachers.
  • School leaders need to create a culture where the staff are looked after first, because that will give us the best chance to recruit and retain well qualified, highly motivated, hard-working, happy, healthy, well trained, expert teachers, which is the best thing for our pupils.

If I am wrong, please someone correct me.

To attract well qualified, highly motivated, hard-working, happy, healthy, well trained, expert teachers to join the profession, we have to create working conditions which are something like those articulated below by the American educator Roland S. Barth, a copy of which I was given by a colleague at Hove Park, Wayne Jones; I have had it posted on my office wall for the last 25 years:

A Personal Vision of an Idealised School Culture

Roland S Barth

‘I would welcome the chance to work in a school characterised by a high level of collegiality, a place teeming with frequent, helpful personal and professional interactions.  I would become excited about life in a school where a climate of risk taking is deliberately fostered and where a safety net protects those who may risk and stumble.  I would like to go each day to a school to be with other adults who genuinely wanted to be there, who really chose to be there because of the importance of their work to others and to themselves.  I would not want to leave a school characterised by a profound respect for, and encouragement of, diversity, where important differences among children and adults were celebrated rather than seen as problems to remedy.  For 190 days each year, I would like to attend an institution that accorded a special place to philosophers who constantly examine and question and frequently replace embedded practices by asking ‘why’ questions.  And I could even reside for a while in a laundry dryer if accompanied by a great deal of humour that helps bond the community by assisting everyone through tough moments.  I’d like to work in a school that constantly takes note of the stress and anxiety level on the one hand and standards on the other, all the while searching for the optimal relationship of low anxiety and high standards.’

At a time when there is a very real shortage of well qualified, highly motivated, hard-working, happy, healthy, well trained, expert teachers, school leaders would do well to review their organisations’ policies and ask themselves whether their policies are conducive to recruiting and retaining well qualified, highly motivated, hard-working, happy, healthy, well trained, expert teachers; if they are not, then they might change the policies until they are conducive to recruiting and retaining well qualified, highly motivated, hard-working, happy, healthy, well trained, expert teachers.

Below are the first and last slides of a talk I am giving at the moment; at least some of the answers to the teacher recruitment and retention crisis are in school leaders’ hands.

 

Posted in General educational issues, School Leadership, Teaching and Learning | 9 Comments

This much I know about…different perspectives, flexible working practices, and Carlos Alberto

I have been a teacher for 30 years, a Headteacher for 15 years and, at the age of 53, this much I know about different perspectives, flexible working practices, and Carlos Alberto.

We all have our points of view. As an English teacher, I used to loathe multiple-choice questions until Daisy Christodoulou helped me see things from a different perspective. Colleagues on our city’s Independent-State School Partnership helped me overcome my stereotypically prejudiced view of independent schools. When I first became a head teacher, over 15 years ago, I automatically considered part-time staff to be a timetabling constraint which created too many split-classes and merely disadvantaged students. Fifteen years on, nearly 50% of our 112 teachers have part-time contracts, because it is one of the most effective ways to retain our best classroom practitioners. And two truly great part-time teachers are far better for our students than one average full-time teacher.

There is a big appetite for more flexible working practices in schools. As the number of likes suggests, since I tweeted about workforce flexibility late last night the response has been emphatic. It seems that there are still many school leaders who are failing to see the benefits of flexible working practices; considering the current recruitment and retention challenge in schools, they might look again at the advantages of family-friendly policies such as part-time contracts and flexible starting times. Without claiming causality, it is a fact that since 2010 we have employed increasing numbers of part-time staff and our students’ outcomes have improved significantly over that same time period.

Looking at an issue from a different viewpoint can give you a fresh perspective. If you hadn’t noticed, it’s the World Cup; as you will see from the two videos below of Carlos Alberto’s sublime goal against Italy in the 1970 World Cup Final, there is more than one way of looking at things.

 

Posted in General educational issues, School Leadership, Teaching and Learning | 2 Comments