I dare not count the number of assemblies I have sat in during my career so far. Definitely not more than I have had hot dinners, but lots. Unsurprisingly, there have been a few duff ones but also some powerful ones. But let me take you back first of all.

When I started teaching, assemblies were seen as a way for the Head or Deputy to take the whole school and give the teachers a bit of time (no PPA in those days). A story was shared or a few songs sung. On a few occasions, the whole school was brought together at a moments notice for a telling off about the latest dangerous behaviour in the playground at lunchtime.

In one school I taught in (we are talking early nineties here) two teachers sat on the benches at the back reading their papers. No one batted an eye lid.

Once, a vicar was taking assembly and asked the children what three letter word they thought he was here to talk to them about, and then proceeded to say it wasn’t S-E-X. Year 6 couldn’t contain themselves.

I have cried only twice in assemblies, for totally opposite reasons. Luckily for me at the time, I had long hair and could dip my head so it covered my face. In the first instance this didn’t really help as I was shaking, trying to hold the laughter in. The school had introduced teachers taking one assembly a year (separate from a class sharing assembly). This particular teacher was talking to the children about the desert and how inhabitable it was. He was talking about how camels had adapted to the habitat and there it was…”Did you know….a camel can get by on one hump a month”!

The second assembly that reduced me to tears was at a different school, my current one. The Headteacher was a musician and the children were beautiful singers. She had been teaching them a particular song for a few weeks and, although not perfect yet, she decided to go for the whole song. This was a gamble as, although it fitted perfectly with the theme of the week, there was an OFSTED Inspector sat at the side (the tears were not O related). The assembly was going well and then she asked the children to sing Deep Peace and they did. Beautifully angelic. I wasn’t the only one with leaky eyes.

There is one other assembly that sticks in my memory, and 10 years later the staff who were in the hall still talk about it. The HT was out, it was Hymn Practice and the only other teacher who knew how to “play” took assembly (no Every School CDs then). We were learning Easter songs. The teacher was very nervous but started us off with what turned out to be a very quick version of We Have a King Who Rides a Donkey. This was comical enough in its own way but is now etched in our minds forever because at the start of the second verse, a young boy in the middle of the hall started bouncing along to the tune, pretending to ride a donkey. He kept it going for the whole song, totally oblivious to everything else.

I have to admit that in my first years of teaching I didn’t really fully understand the power of assemblies. In fact, class sharing assemblies were a nightmare. They became an unspoken of competition between staff – who could come up with the best ideas, who could put on the most lavish production, who could make their assembly last the longest (50 minutes, this for a class assembly, although a Science Week whole school shared one did last an hour and a half), you get the idea.

There are some things that happen in assemblies, you know they will, but you are in a Catch 22 situation.

A child coughs. It has a domino effect, some mimicking, some just coughing. Do you mention it or raise your voice above the coughing and carrry on regardless? Either way, more coughing will ensue.

Velcro shoe fastenings are the nemesis of those leading assembly, especially when Reception are in. One does it, you silently indicate to them to stop whilst keeping the flow, then some others do it, just because they can.

Wind breaking (enough said).

Rude words being sung in defiance by one child (usually, but not exclusively) which sends a ripple of giggles from the children and a collective frown from any staff who hear it.

However as Deputy, but mainly as Acting Headteacher (I have done a few stints in this role), I now truly “get” the role of assemblies. They are all part of the bigger picture in terms of setting the tone, sharing vision and expectations with all the children, a chance  to inspire, ask the big questions, create moments of awe and wonder for the whole school but most of all to celebrate us, as individuals and as a collective, the school and everyone who makes it what it is. I love taking assembly and then experiencing follow up conversations with the children throughout the day/week.

A final thought…a whole school singing session does wonders for the soul.


Sunny Spots

Having had a couple of trying incidents to deal with this week, it would be easy to write about them and their impact. However, to counteract this, I have decided to focus on things that happened in school this week that made me smile (my Sunny Spots).

This week, my Sunny Spots were:

Year 6 children reading to and with Year 2 children in the library and also playing phonics and maths games with them.. This is something I feel we do not do enough of and both sets of children got something out of this experience. Too much emphasis in the past few years on the Year 6 children “not having enough time”. We need to make this time happen regularly, as it is mutually beneficial.

Year 6 children chatting enthusiastically in the dinner hall about their class reader, Once by Morris Gleitzman.

Our Playground Mediators sorting out an issue calmly and supportively with a few Year 1 children.

Year 4/5 children hot seating linked to Pandora’s Box. This was not the usual Hot Seating activity though…it was Jeremy Kyle style and included a blow up microphone! The best part was the questions the audience were asking. They were deep and meaningful and picked out key themes from the story.

Year 3 children celebrating their Beat That Big Maths scores.

Year 6 training Year 2 children on the best tactics and playing as a team for the forthcoming Benchball Tournament at the local high school.

Reception children confidently having their first try at climbing ropes, frames and rope ladders. Much braver than I ever was.

Year 1 children mixing colours with powder paint and sharing their art work proudly.

There was something that made me really laugh though. I walk outside before and after school, chatting to parents and carers. As it has been very cold this week, my best friend was my hat. The faces they pulled when they realised it was me saying Good Morning to them was priceless! Maybe they were trying to think if they had said something they might not want me to hear!


The Bad Old Days 

This poll was put on Twitter today.

To say it caused outrage is an understatement. Comments kept coming in about weekly book looks, observations and planning scrutiny. Some were acceptable and concentrated on developing teaching and learning, working with teachers to improve practice. Others however, were draconian, with planning having to be handed in to SLT in advance, weekly/monthly full observations, weekly book scrutinies etc etc etc.

As Sue Cowley (@Sue_Cowley) put it, “If you recruit someone, but then don’t trust them to do the job you recruited them for, I would worry about your recruitment procedures. Offering someone a job is offering them your trust. If you think they need support, it becomes your responsibility when you employ them”. Sue also struggled with the reasons behind teachers having to hand in planning to SLT before teaching them.

I am in absolute agreement with Sue on this one. I have lived through this and will explain here. In no way am I saying it was right and it caused undue stress on the staff but this was our context. Thankfully we have worked through it and are coming out the other side, not entirely unscathed. I wrote a bit about this and trust building in my previous blog. There is some crossover with this one.

We were a Requires Improvement school, having been Satisfactory previous to that, and Good previous to that (under old 7 grade system). Our LA set up a Securing Good programme, which all RI schools had to participate in. The LA Advisors visited us twice as often as Good schools and did joint observations with the HT and SLT. We were observed three times during the year for Performance Management purposes. They wanted more but the teachers spoke to their unions and our PM policy stated maximum of 3 hours observations. So the Advisor told SLT to do Learning Walks to gather evidence and only stay in classrooms for 10 to 15 minutes so official feedback to staff was not necessary. Book scrutinies had to be fortnightly to monitor progress and yes, consistency in marking. This was also an action from OFSTED, which I know has changed now. OFSTED was mentioned in everybstaff meeting.

I sat in one pupil progress meeting with a Year 2 teacher. The Head went through the English books and told the teacher she wasn’t following school policy as all pieces did not have a next steps comment. The progress in the books was outstanding, despite this. I had had this conversation with the HT beforehand and said we couldn’t criticise as the children were making progress and that the feedback must have been taking place for this to happen. I said we should be asking what she did and use it with others. But no.

Lesson observations became tick lists (based on OFSTED criteria) to be achieved. WALT, WILF and TIB had to be displayed (because SOME teachers weren’t sharing them within lessons) and discussed at the start of the lesson or that box wasn’t ticked (yes, even if you needed to wait until later in the lesson). All sing, all dancing lessons were expected. Progress was expected to be seen in 20 minutes and WILFs reviewed at least twice within the lesson.

Another area for improvement was differentiation. SOME staff were not stretching the more able children or providing sufficient scaffolding for others. Instead of supporting those teachers, as Sue so rightly stated should happen, all teachers had to fill in weekly planning grids for English and maths with boxes for three levels of differentiation, an introduction, a plenary and an evaluation. These were handed in twice, once at the start of the week and then again at the end, with an evaluation. This increased workload and stress levels. The HT kept them in a folder and ticked them off when handed in. Staff were chased up when not given in. They were monitored half termly against a tick list that was purely policing a system, not the content or impact.

It was only last year, when I was Acting Head that we stopped this, despite having achieved Good in 2014. Some things were so ingrained in the HT psych that they couldn’t be let go.

We now do not collect planning, although Subject Leaders do look at it with the teachers, but in conjunction with book looks, visits to classes and discussions with teachers and children, so that they can talk about what their subject looks like through school and monitor progress and coverage. This is done in a supportive way. There is no planning format for all. Teachers bring books to pupil progress meetings as evidence to be discussed.

We are constantly reviewing our feedback policy to ensure it reflects what is happening. We do not expect to see it looking the same in all year groups, as was previously the case because “consistency”.

As for observations, these are now shorter, within a previously agreed window, so that learning is seen in context and staff are not planning to the hilt, or teaching things out sequence for a show lesson and losing sleep, which was the way we were. This doesn’t suit everyone but we are working through this together.

It seems that some SLT have not moved on from these bad times. No wonder many teachers don’t feel trusted. Tarring everyone with the same brush doesn’t cut it. Support teachers individually to improve their practice.

SLT must trust their teachers to do their job and work with, not against, them to develop further. I know there are many out there who do. Those SLT who do not, well they need to take a long, hard look at themselves and ask if they are in the right job.

Trust Building

I am now in my 30th year of teaching. I started teaching in 1987, before the National Curriculum, before SATs, before the National Literacy and Numeracy Strategies, before OFSTED (which started with 7 grades, from very poor all the way up to excellent), before INSET Days (when they started they were called Baker Days, after the Education Secretary at the time, Kenneth Baker), before PPA, before schools were trusted to run their own budgets.

ILEA was still a thing, but not for long.

Schools used to get months of notice before an inspection.  Nice, I hear you say. Not really. I prefer the short notice.

During my career I have experienced 15 Education Secretaries (the title has changed many times) and 6 Prime Ministers. 17 of those have been under a Conservative Government, 13 under Labour.

I could go on but, suffice to say, I have seen a lot. I am also making myself feel older than is necessary!

When I started, we planned in a notebook. Our topic planning was a spider diagram. Our maths and literacy were lists of activities. Many times, teachers would be walking back to class, still not sure what their lessons were going to be, let alone what the children were going to be learning. The only schemes were reading schemes that the children worked through.

Teaching Assistants were rare. Only children with statements of special educational needs had a 1:1. The rest of the school had 1 or 2 general TAs who washed paint pots, made cups of tea for teachers on duty (I know, but it happened) and went on trips with classes.

The introduction of the National Strategies in 1997 brought about mass employment of teaching assistants to run interventions/catch up alongside the strategies. Money was available for this but that has long gone.

In 1997, the Literacy and Numeracy Hours were introduced. Teachers had to time their lessons. Many had the horror of advisors turning up with stopwatches and feedback mainly consisted of being told off if you didn’t go into independent time to the minute or you did not spend long enough on your introduction. Guided/ shared reading AND writing had to be incorporated into this and planning sheets were scrutinised to ensure this happened. I apologise to those reading this who remember and lived through these times, for the shiver that will go down your spine at the next graphic, but youngsters need to see what we went through.

Those teachers who trained during this time were taught how to plan in little boxes and to stick to planning no matter what. Schemes of work were provided by QCA for Foundation Subjects (although not statutory, merely examples of schemes, many schools took them on as they stood) and these too were planned in boxes. Year 3 pencil cases, Year 6 designing and making a slipper in DT, anyone? One slipper? Yes, really.

Lesson observations became more rigorous, tick boxes were created and teachers expected to get all ticked to be outstanding. One off show lessons became the norm and from the moment an observation was put in the diary, teachers started to plan their potentially outstanding lesson that would tick all boxes. They planned, changed their mind, planned again. They lost sleep. They cut out 300 numbers/words/phrases for a 5 minute activity, had 5 levels of differentiated worksheets and bags under their eyes. They kept going in lessons where it was obvious to all that the children were confused and were adamant that little Lisa had known how to add fractions yesterday.

So, fast forward to the past couple of years.  No matter how many times we work as teams to discuss learning and progress happening over time and that one off lessons will not be graded, some staff are still of the mindset that they need to get everything into one lesson. They still panic about observations. Even when we did some coaching, they were defensive about any suggestions for improving the provision in their classrooms. The pressures that were put on teachers over the years, especially when sub levels and points progress every 6 weeks became a thing have a lasting legacy.

It is taking a long time for this indoctrination and mental torture habit to be broken. There are some who will never let it go, no matter how much support is given. It has been a hard couple of years, some are still thinking in levels and are scared to say that they know children are on track, given what has been taught already, not what has not been covered. Some are still struggling with covering less in greater depth, having only known the processes of moving children on quickly, so that they can pass a test, the teacher can meet their Appraisal targets and the school can meet floor standards.

As a senior leader I want to trust my teachers to do the job they signed up for, to educate children. I want to let them get on with it but for some there is still a fear straying from what they think SLT (or worse, external bodies) want to see. Still the fear exists, for some, that every aspect of learning needs to be in each lesson or it cannot be good enough.
There are still fights to be fought with those (externally, I hasten to add) asking for data half termly, grading lessons, asking for predictions that cannot be made  and those who don’t trust teachers.

I will fight those fights so that the teachers can grow in confidence again and trust themselves. Just as SLT need to be trusted to know their school, their staff and their children. There is work to be done.

We are on a journey. We are on this journey together. Trust me.