Sunday, 26 March 2017

Are you prone to hero/martyr syndrome? I know I am...

I was recently working with a group of educational leaders, looking at the "Hero's Journey". This seems to be a rough import from Joseph Campbell's work on mythologies into leadership theory.

We talked about arriving as newbie leaders in difficult situations.

The school is not as good as the previous headteacher and governors thought it was. We start delving into stuff and find out that one thing after another isn't fit for purpose. Pretty soon, we are feeling despair about ever getting to the bottom of all the problems, let alone fixing them.

Or we knowingly take on a school in difficult circumstances - but find that the complexity and misery involved isn't adequately described by blunt, official terms like failing or inadequate.

The "hero's journey" trope suggests that now we fall into a kind of abyss. And it's only by accepting that we are in this abyss, and getting others to accept it, that a kind of rebirth can happen.



Back in 2009, I blogged about my own version of this - a horribly difficult 100 days during my first headship.

I've been thinking some more about this, and about the belief that it's only through suffering that transformation can happen.

Sometimes, when groups of heads and other leaders in education get together, it can almost seem like there is a Dutch auction going on - who's lowest, who's having the worst experience, who's suffering the most?

We measure ourselves against benchmarks like: who's working the longest hours? Who has the worst results, the most unreasonable governing body, the trickiest parents, or the bunch of children with the most difficult behaviour?

I'm not writing this as if I have any kind of perspective on it - I'm part of this faux-martyr culture.

I would feel too guilty to tell one of my peers if I had a day when I left work early, or a weekend when I completely switched off rather than working hard to catch up.

That's despite being in a context where parents, governors, children and the community are supportive.

Things are only going to get tougher in schools in the years ahead, and I suspect that my default response to difficult times is the same as Boxer's in Animal Farm: "I must work harder".

But isn't it worth thinking up a different story? Whilst I see how we are gripped by the "hero's journey", it is putting headteachers and school leaders far too much in the centre. It personalises things too much. Medieval heroes may have brought about atonement through personal suffering, but surely that's not a good analogy for school leadership in 2017?

Heroic feats and personal suffering are not required for effective leadership.

The obvious danger is that in trying to do our best, we are paying a personal cost that's too high.

Equally dangerous is the self-aggrandisement which is involved. We puff ourselves up and make ourselves the centre of everything - and we stop being much use to the people we work with. The work gets de-centred by the person: hero/martyr complexes are ultimately narcissistic.

Let's not forget what happened to the heroic Boxer who thought that every problem could be solved by working harder. His heroic death: to be carted off to the knacker's yard and boiled down for glue.


Sunday, 5 March 2017

The London Mayor's Education Conference 2017: why we should support plans to develop early years hubs in London

Here's something which is cause for optimism: Sadiq Khan has appointed a deputy mayor, Joanne McCartney, to lead on education - including early education and childcare. At the 2017 Mayor's Education Conference last week, in a gloriously sunny City Hall, Khan also clearly stated his commitment to high quality early education, and better availability of childcare.

The view from London's City Hall
I was fortunate to have a slot to talk to a group of about 120 of London's leaders in education about the "hub" project in Newham which I've been involved with, called Learning without limits.

In the Manor Park hub, which is where I am based, schools, settings from the private and voluntary sector, and childminders have been working hard, together, to improve quality and to make the whole system easier to access for parents.

We have a way to go yet, but the impact of the last few years of work has been impressive and a tribute to the joint efforts we have made and our determination to keep doing better.

In Manor Park all the early years group provision - whether in schools, or in private or independent settings - is graded Good or Outstanding by Ofsted.

Childminder quality has improved significantly and is close to the average for England.

Over 75% of children eligible for a free place at the age of two are now accessing that place.

Outcomes by the end of the Early Years Foundation Stage in Manor Park are ahead of the national average, too. In summer 2016:
  • 69.3% of children nationally achieved a Good Level of Development (PDF);
  • 72% of children in Manor Park achieved a Good Level Of Development
That doesn't mean things are as good as we want them to be.

But it does mean we have made some progress towards our big goal: working with parents to give children in a disadvantaged part of East London the best possible chance to develop as happy, curious and eager learners, pupils, students and citizens in a great world city.

So, what could the GLA hope to achieve by developing a new early years hubs programme across London?



At the Mayor's Education Conference, I argued that the current Early Years system suffers from disconnection, especially if your family is not well off. Whilst it seems unarguable to me that more must be done to reduce the shocking number of children living in poverty across London, improvements in public services can also make an important difference to children's life chances.

Thursday, 2 February 2017

Monday, 30 January 2017

Celebrating children's learning

The large majority of early years practitioners use the non-statutory Development Matters as a guide to planning for children's progress in the EYFS. But there has bee a longstanding problem: whereas a range of exemplification materials have been produced for the Early Learning Goals, there is nothing equivalent to support Development Matters. That means that there haven't been the materials to support training and development in this area, or to support moderation of assessments.

This is particularly important when it comes to transition. If children are going to build their learning over time as they transfer from, say, a preschool into a primary school, or from a childminder into a nursery class, then it is important that the assessment information about them is accurate and robust. Otherwise, the receiving school or setting may well simply ignore all the information that transfers with the child. That's why the East London Partnership worked with a group of nursery schools across London on the Celebrating Children's Learning project.

These observations were contributed by the group to help practitioners to assess children’s learning and exemplify the progress they make, using the Development Matters guidance. They were particularly selected to show the Characteristics of Effective Learning in action. Every aspect of the seven prime and specific areas of learning is illustrated by real observations of young children’s learning in action, using a wide range of different styles and formats.


We hope that these materials will be useful for training and development purposes, both to develop the quality of assessment, and to improve the accuracy and robustness of assessment across the early years. If early years settings, childminders and schools come together for training and for moderation, that will improve transition arrangements and will help to ensure that children can build on their learning and deepen their interests. Higher-quality assessment information will also engage parents more, and prompt more discussion: fostering early learning is a partnership between parents and practitioners.

As we worked on the project, we identified four features in the most effective practice in early years assessment:


  • you can ‘hear’ the child’s voice or ‘get a feel’ for their play
  • there is keen observation of the child’s exploration, play and thinking
  • the practitioner has noticed that the child is learning a new skill, or is making new links between aspects of knowledge
  • there are examples of Sustained Shared Thinking, or a response from the child showing their feeling of awe and wonder.


Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Early years assessment in schools: time the game was over

The government’s decision to scrap the unreliable, time-consuming and expensive baseline assessment scheme for reception classes was widely welcomed, as was their decision to retain the Early Years Foundation Stage Profile. As there are no further planned changes to the system, surely this is an ideal time for us to re-consider some of our practice in the early years?

Assessment in the early years should be principled and responsible: it should promote the best interests of children. The Statutory Framework for the EYFS promotes a play-based approach to early education with a focus on the Characteristics of Effective Learning – and so should our systems for assessment. We should call time on some of the more unsavoury practices in early years assessment which take place in schools.

Firstly, we need to stop playing games with the assessment system. Children’s attainment on entry is still, in far too many cases, artificially depressed. Schools all over the country – even those in affluent areas – continue to report that on entry, children’s levels of development are below the expected levels. It cannot be true that the development of more-or-less every child in England is below the level expected for their age. Depressing assessment levels on entry – whether children start in nursery or reception – makes it easier for schools to show their “value added”. But it also has a corrosive effect: it lowers expectations. When I recently heard that a school leader had asked staff to be less generous in their assessments so that the children had “room to grow”, it struck me that those children were unlikely to get the sort of challenging provision they need in order to become more engaged, creative and persistent learners.

Secondly, we should consider how we might refocus our practice in the early years so that we develop higher-quality, more in-depth assessment. That means discouraging the tick-lists and the impulsive grabs for the iPad to photograph every little thing every child achieves. Each time practitioners focus on recording what children can do “for evidence”, they lose time to interact with children, encourage their efforts or develop their thinking. There is no value in recording assessment for its own sake: what makes a difference is giving children attention, time, and the teaching and provision they need. The endless recording of every child’s progress against every single descriptor in Development Matters is just a deadening chore.  Nancy Stewart, who co-wrote the non-statutory guidance to the Early Years Foundation Stage, has recently argued that when Development Matters is “used as a tick list of descriptors of what children must achieve, it can sadly limit both children’s development and the professional awareness and skills of practitioners.” That sad limitation is happening in schools all over England. Instead, why not focus on improving the quality of assessment information whilst reducing the quantity? Then we could use those high-quality assessments for something useful: developing better teaching and richer provision.

Read on: Nursery World's Early Years in School supplement, page 17

Find out more about the East London Partnership's work to improve assessment in the early years

You can find out more about effective approaches to assessment, which also meet the requirements of Ofsted's Common Inspection Framework, in my new book Successful Early Years Ofsted Inspections: Thriving Children, Confident Staff 


Sunday, 15 January 2017

Newham's Early Years Conference, 2017

One of the excitements of working with a network of schools and co-leading the East London Partnership Teaching School Alliance is that there are great opportunities to bring people together. I loved seeing well over 200 practitioners from across East London coming together for our annual Early Years Conference.

Seeing such a diverse group of teachers, early years educators, and others who are committed to offering young children the very best experiences in the early years made me feel optimistic for the future.

You can get a bit of a flavour of the conference from all the day's tweets which have been published here as a Storify.


Saturday, 17 December 2016

Celebrating young children's learning in the Early Years Foundation Stage

I'm sharing the PowerPoint from my keynote to TACTYC's 2016 Conference, considering what we might learn about assessment from the work of some of the pioneers of early education, and discussing a project led by a group of Maintained Nursery Schools in London called "Celebrating Young Children's Learning". There's more to come from that project in the New Year ...