Thursday, October 30, 2008

Community Cohesion

Having missed August (because I was on holiday) and September (because I was run off my feet - although that's no excuse). I thought I'd better get an entry in before October finishes.

This month I have been mainly thinking about community cohesion. It's a new buzz phrase. It's statutory. Ofsted will be checking for it. So what is it?

Well for me it's the cildren, parents, teachers and everyone else in school working well together. It's all of us involved with school getting hold of a notion that we need to be 'community' to give our children a chance of being responsible citizens in the future.

We already do many things that make us community, such as the charity days throughout the year and performances. Last year in particular, we had a marvellous 70th anniversary celebration with over 300 parents and other adults from the community in attendance.

One of the outcomes of the change school programme will be that we will become a better learning community. I can write this confidently because I can see it in-built into the way the programme works. However the question will be how long-lasting will the change be? And Who's community will it become?

COMMUNITY COHESION - but it won't last...
The temptation for a teacher is to be in control. We have our own ideas about what the community should be and we'll move the children and hopefully the parents to that point by sheer effort and will power if we need to. My temptation is to have all the answers and all the ideas. Then three years from now we may have achieved our goals but they will fall apart quickly, especially if I (as CP co-ordinator) should leave.

COMMUNITY COHESION - the long-lasting solution
So if I'm not going to be in control, who is? The changes we make to our community will be more long-lasting if all members of the community have the ideas about what the changes should be. That's sounds obvious doesn't it? Everyone should be involved in the changes that affect them. The consequence of not feeling involved is that you lose your resposnibility over the changes and you don't need to learn from them - hence the amount of learning is reduced. That's sounds bad for a school, which is supposed to be about learning.

So here's our model:

  1. We ask a small group of children a question - what is Paganel? (Paganel, by the way is the name of our school).
  2. We support them to answer the question.
  3. They present the answers to a wider group of children and parents.
  4. The wider group of children and parents are asked the same question.
  5. We support the wider group to answer the question.
  6. They present their answers.
  7. We all ask the question: What should Paganel be?

My hope is that over time 'we' and 'they' would become 'us'.

We've actually started the above process. On Friday 3rd October the School Council (representing year groups from 2 to 6) visited Stan's Cafe's "Of All the People in the World" Exhibition. If you've not heard of it, this shows the scale of various populations around the planet by using piles of rice. Doesn't sound very impressive does it, but it is actually quite awe-inspiring when you're there.

We followed that up with a workship asking the question "What is Paganel?" through the medium of showing the scale of things - however we didn't just use rice - we used jelly babies, peas, sweetcorn, raisins, marshmellows, etc. - What was pleasing is that the children came up with those suggestions and even better, came up with the suggestions of what categories we could use to represent the school and show it in context - including areas, such as 'how we travel to school', 'who's been on a plane' and the like. You can see some of the pictures from that workshop here.

Next the school council is planning a more formal exhibition for a wider group of parents and children from the 10th-14th November, but you'll have to wait for my next entry to see that.

Here are some of the tricky question for the future... I've posed some and given the best answer I have at this current time.

What if we don't like some of the ideas the children and parents have? While I don't think we should have all the answers, nor force our ideas on the community, I do think that is our role to lead the community in matters around learning - hence we shouild probably expect to provide around 80% of the ideas and answers. This means that we need to have these ideas and answers already. That's a bit scary.

Will this impact standards? YES! We have identified that the biggest barrier to raising standards in our school is a lack of independent learning. Giving children and parents ownership of the learning can only increase the level of independence and therefore raise standards.

Isn't the temptation going to be to concentrate on the arty stuff and forget the basics of learning? NO! Standards is the first priority of the school development plan. Change is a complex process and we cannot expect just to throw this project at our school and for it to sort all our problems out - we need to keep all our good practice AND still make these changes.

How can we measure whether our community cohesion has increased? Hmm. Good question. I'm going to have athink about that - not entirely sure how you can baseline community cohesion...

If anyone has any better answers, or more importantly or better questions, do make a comment below...

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Building Capacity

This month I have been thinking about how we “build capacity”. For many years I’ve thought about making processes more efficient – refining them – “making the most of what you’ve got”, but now I’m contrasting that with the idea of ‘getting more’, i.e. building capacity.

Building Capacity v Refining Current Processes
The rigour brought about by Ofsted, SATs and the national curriculum over recent years has undoubtedly refined processes in all schools, some more than others, depending on the outcome of inspection. The pressure to ensure rigour is greater than ever – if standards are low and cannot be justified then the school will be placed into a category – inspections will become more frequent and if insufficient progress is made the school will close. In addition, the new SIPs (or School Improvement Partners as opposed to School Improvement Plan, just to confuse us with acronyms) are bringing about a LEA led inspection regime ensures the rigour is maintained on a half-termly cycle.

Schools have become very good at improving processes – Afl, ISP, ITS, PPMs, MSC, RAP are just some of the things I have been involved in over the last three years to improve the processes at my school and I’m sure that any colleagues reading this will identify some of the TLAs above, or have a whole list of their own. Children deserve the best out of their school and it is important for us to use all our resources as efficiently as we can to educate our children to the very best. However, I suspect that we have so focussed on using our current resources to the very best that we have neglected to look for new ones.

It is unfair to say that we have neglected to look for new resources – projects are always coming our way – little pots of funding for this and that – but what is the long term impact of them? And how do they tie in to what we’re already doing well? Is it possibly to use short term projects and funding to permanently alter the education we offer?

Pat Thompson on Day 1 of the creative partnership programme talked about the different ways school have approached change. She gave an example of a school that had so bought into the idea of long term change that they had forgotten to ensure their current processes were sharp enough and so Oftsed had failed them. On the other hand, a school that is only involved in short term improvement will never move beyond a certain point, because they are not changing the underlying fundamental perceptions of education held by their community.

The Big Education Ambition
And we are engaged in such an ambitious project…

In some ways, I am surprised the government has not made more of it. Education, education, education was Tony Blair’s message ten or more years ago, but I am only now understanding the magnitude of the task set before us.

Education until 18, for the majority of children. What a job.

Most adults in our country left school at 14. Only in the past 30 years have children been asked to stay to 16 and only in the last 10 has it been raised even higher. Years of history stand against us. We have an education system that was set up to give the basics to a majority and some more academic skills to a few; now we have begun to ask everyone to gain those higher academic skills. What an exciting task! And what a legacy we might leave…. What if we could change the culture of a nation?

The Halberd Returns

This is why I like the picture of the halberd I used last time – its axe blade representing the processes we need to keep sharp – to do the ‘best we can with what we’ve got’, whereas the pointy complicated bit on the back of the axe represents the underlying perceptions of education that we need a special tool for (more long term, more tricky to use).

Therefore, while it is vital to improve processes within the capacity of our schools, ‘building capacity’ does refer to that aspect of school improvement. It is something more long term, something bigger, something transformational.

What is Building Capacity?
So, if building capacity is not about improving processes, what is it? Pat Thompson talked about the first stage of change being getting ‘stuff’. What is that stuff? I think it is comprised of three things and all three depend on money:
1. People
2. Time
3. Technology

When the change school programme money lands in our school, we have several choices what to do with it, but they will involve all three of the above in some measure. Firstly there will be new people – the creative agent and the creative partner. Then there will be the time we spend in conversation and refection. And finally there will be some technology – whether we buy different shaped paint brushes, build a giant latex beehive or purchase dictaphones so the children can record their reflections upon seeing a work of art – we will buy something.

Using More Capacity

Teachers are the keystone.

Instantly then we have more capacity – we can do more. But the key to getting this capacity in place is the class teacher. This is the structure we have chosen to use at our school – a class of 30 children is taught by a teacher. The performance of that teacher (and therefore their pay) is judged by the performance of their children. One teacher only has so much capacity – there comes a point where you can’t throw any more projects at a teacher, because they just can’t organise any more and class teachers have to organise everything because then they can integrate their projects into the rest of the classroom practice for the benefit of the children. Children can be withdrawn for certain groups and projects, but this can become a drain on a class, because it alters the dynamics within a class.

I suppose what I’m trying to say is that when you offer more capacity in different ways. If somebody had a stainless steel bucket of water you could offer them a glass of water and they would have more water. But that glass would never be part of that bucket.

Or, if you could give them the glass of water, but somehow (through bad communication, bad planning, or something) that glass got dropped into the bucket, then you would actually diminish the amount of water they had… (that’s when Archimedes principle bites you in the proverbials)
Or what if you just gave them some stainless steel. Then you gave them the skills to weld that steel onto the bucket. It’s a difficult job , but you would have a bigger bucket at the end of it – hence more capacity!

The conclusion I’m coming to here is that the planning phase of the change school programme is the most vital part. And for that planning phase to work we need to reflect honestly on how our organisation actually works. Where are the tight bits in the pipe work and the bits where the water just flows through easily? I think I might have just said that having a Reflection Phase even before the planning phase is even more important. Phase Zero we could call it.

This is Phase Zero.

I think as a postscript I’d like to remember that we may have bits of capacity that we currently have but don’t actually use… like the two parents are active members of local re-enactment societies, like the huge grounds we have, like the Weoley Castle just next door – the oldest place in Birmingham and no one from our school has even visited it…

Hmm. Food for thought. I will think on.

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Friday, June 20, 2008

Initial Training

I'm not going to define what the creative partnership is yet, because I don't really know. I'm going to start with the questions it raised for me.

QUESTION 1 - why are we here?
Firstly, before we start, why are we here? (an interesting philosophical question at the best of times). On one level we (as in Paganel Primary - my school) are here because we succeeded in an application and interview, but we did that because we have identified that our children need motivation. And that comes down to our core purpose that we are here to raise standards of achievement and attainment. At Paganel we have come so far, but feel we are now stuck because our children will perform for us, i.e. they do well in tests when a member of staff they like is present, but they will not perform for their own purposes. So the children are not motivated by academic success and that's what we want to change. But if I'm honest, the reason I want them to change is so they can acheive and attain more.

There was an interesting exercise on Day 1 where we were asked to stand in different parts of the room according to why we thought we were there. The categories included "to create a fun and exciting school", "to give children skills for the future" (which, being a bit of idealist, was where I stood) and the like. The only person who stood by the poster labelled "to raise standards of attainment and achievement" was my good colleague Penny Thompson. But she was right - the core purpose behind all the reasons represented by the schools there, from developing a skills based curriculum, to getting professional artists in school, to raising staff knowledge was to raise standards of achievement and attainment.

I think we don't like to admit that, because in our heads it somehow pollutes the creative arts by limiting them with such language that we associate with inspection, rigour, success and failure. However I suspect, although I don't know yet, that some of us in teaching have a rather patronising view of the arts (and indeed artists), and that actually artists exist within a world where rigour and inspection is required, possibly even more intensely than in schools - in fact, now I'm thinking about it, I suppose artists don't get second chances like we do when we fluff a lesson or fail to indentify the learning needs of a child or groups of children - I don't know, but could it be that an artists reputation is down to their most recent piece of work and if that fails...

QUESTION 2 - have we got everyone on board?
The next thing impressed on me is the question 'but have we got everyone on board?'

The SLT (senior leadership team) have identified that improving the intrinsic motivation of the children is key to raising standards. We've told the staff, and informed the governors that we are on the creative partnerships programme, but what do they actually think about that? And what do the children and parents think about having this programme 'done to them'?

Pat Thompson, the professer from Nottingam Uni who gave the keynote address on the first day, talked about a process of change that involved all stakeholders (which we all know, but what do actually do about it...?). It would go something like this:

  1. What are we changing?
  2. Why are we changing?
  3. How do we know this is the right thing to change?
  4. Who says this?
  5. Who address this?
  6. What is going on here?

It made me think that if we are going to do this properly, then we're should use the first few weeks / months of the programme to go through that process with the staff, parents and pupils, otherwise the programme will only ever remain that, and when we finish, we will simply revert to how we were before. I'll sum it up by saying...

"for sustainability, we must all subscribe to the process."

It's probably still the case that the SLT should have 90% of the answers, but at the same time be prepared for tweaks, twists and surprising alterations to come from the other stakeholders involved. It's not our job to be patronising, but neither should we be obsequious...

QUESTION 3 - Can we design a complex plan for multiple phases with different start dates…?

Pat Thompson talked about 5 phases of change

  1. Stuff
  2. New ways of thinking
  3. Changes for staff and students
  4. Embedded changes
  5. Changes across the board

What was scary about this was that every organisation dips after phase 5, so you need to have new things that have already started to kick in when phase 5 in the last thing has been reached. I drew a picture...

I guess by asking this, I'm recognising that we are already involved in change... We are honing our assessment systems, integrating new government policies, such as the new frameworks for English and Maths, and other stuff too. We are at different points along the track of introducing these and need to recognise that we need to do all of them. Some of those things are short term and involve doing the best we can with what we've got, but what I like about the creative partnership is this notion of 'building capacity'. These means longer term change, but at the end of it, with more capacity built (for better teaching, better learning environment, or whatever), the future changes will be even more effective.

I don't know much about building capacity yet, although I did draw a picture of it.

QUESTION 4 - Are we committed to being explicit around the issues of building capacity?
Such as... completing dialogue, distributing leadership (and therefore management), government agenda for schooling to 18 and what that means for our families…

Because I don't know enough about this yet, I can't say much more, except that if we are committed to this notion of 'building capacity' then we need to change how we talk and work with each other. I just don't know what that looks like yet...

I'm about done now, except I did come up with some other questions for future consideration that we may need to think through...


Can we be honest about many start times for differing plans?

How many plates can we spin?

What about the process? Is it robust? Will it cope with staff change?

What about a decision making policy? Are children (SRC) involved in this or is it just tokenism?

We already have a 'change team' – can it represent the whole school and still drive the change school agenda?


We won’t finish. We can’t. Change goes on for ever. The old Chinese curse says, “May you live in interesting times.” We do. Tough. Get on with it.

I'd like to finish with the change halberd. The sharp axe bit is the quick short term, doing-the-best-we've-got-with-what-we've-been-given thing, and the pointy bit is the long term change to remove sticky problems, be more versatile and do more different things. I know it's a rather violent image, but it works for me...