Ahead in the Med?

Today I have returned to my school after spending a week on the beautiful island of Sicily, off the southernmost point of mainland Italy. This was not part of an extended Easter Holiday- I, ironically, spent most of this doing school work and driving my son to various sporting events!  It was a visit as part of our Erasmus+ project for Raising Achievement in Migrant Pupils.  The project has lasted for 2 years and we have formed a partnership with schools in Catalonia and Sicily (locations for mass immigration over the past few years).

Through the project, teachers from each school visit the other countries and see how they help their migrant pupils at school and local council levels. Whilst visiting, we can meet the pupils and their parents, spend time in the schools to see what they do and talk with school leaders about the impact and problems their projects have.

Spending time in other schools is one of the most valuable things I get to do as a leader. It allows you to open your mind to new ideas, as they are demonstrated in concrete style before your eyes.  It also allows you to reflect on practices in your own setting and challenge any preconceptions about how good or bad things really are.

My time in Sicily was fascinating and I learned a great deal. The Italian education system could be likened to school here in the 1950s.  At primary level, everything is based around workbooks, which the children complete.  There appeared to be very little differentiation, with children who were more able simply left to kill time when the page in the book had been completed.  Vast amounts of time were wasted with children sitting in rooms with nothing to do.  This was particularly evident at lunchtime, when the famed European 2 hour lunch break was shown to me in its stark reality.  The children all sat and ate a massive meal, using knives and forks to various levels of competence. Once the meal was finished, they were then left to just sit.  Sicilian children are no different to ours.  They began to get louder, fiddled with the utensils, tore small pieces from the paper table cloths and flicked them at each other.  Some got up and wandered and one or two even began to play tag around their tables.  Teachers mostly ignored this behaviour- busy eating their own lunch and conversing with their colleagues.  Occasionally, a teacher would address a wandering child and get them to sit again.  This wasn’t cultural development of any sort.  This was simply child-minding, and not very good child-minding.  What these children needed to do, was to go out and run around!  With lunch finishing at 2.30pm, there would be 30 minutes left in the day until the bus came to collect the children.  Now I ask you- given 20, 8 year old children in a classroom for 30 minutes, what would you do?  A whole range of ideas immediately spring to mind, I’m sure.  Read a story, play some word games, discuss the news.  The list goes on.  In Sicily, they just waited- no interaction from the teacher.  Nothing.


Now I don’t write this to simply damn the Italian education system. After all, they are doing something right.  I met many bright and able 15 year olds, who will be great university students.  I also witnessed amazing musical talents from very young children, who could all play from notation.  I write this because my time in Sicily showed me two things:

  1. Educational change will only happen if there is a great enough level of dissatisfaction with the current position to overcome the effort that will be needed to make the change. In Italy, reading is recognised as an issue. Italy sit 34th in the world for Reading on the PISA tables. However, there were no reading books in any of the schools I visited. No Diary of a Wimpy Kids, no Barry Losers, no Harry Potters or even their Italian counterparts. Teachers did not hear children read. The class did not enjoy a class story and discuss what might happen next. Children did not even bring their own reading books to school- weighed down by a hundred work books, there probably wasn’t room in their back packs! Whilst the children may be able to read, there was no love of reading. The system hasn’t ever changed. Italian parents are not dissatisfied as this was the education they had. Teachers are not dissatisfied as they generally worked 16-18 hours per week and would not be prepared to do any more than that.   And then there was the head teacher. She was a passionate and dedicated leader. She knew that reading was a problem. She was dissatisfied. This leads me to my 2nd realisation.
  2. Leaders can only implement change if they have the power to do so. Power can be influence over others, it can be money, it can be the voice you have to be heard by the crowd. My Italian counterpart had none of these. Her staff were appointed by the state- they worked their hours and no more. They would baulk at any suggestion of doing anything above and beyond. The school had no money. Tax in Italy is 27% from the first Euro you earn for the basic rate payers and 52% for higher earners, but the cash was obviously not spent on school buildings or resources. The opulence of the Mayor’s office was jaw-dropping when one had just left a classroom with no books and broken tables. Finally she had no voice. Any idea she had must first be accepted by the Mayor’s office. No freedom to experiment, no innovations encouraged.

My time in Sicily taught me a lot, but it mostly taught me to be grateful for the freedom I have as an educator to do the best for our children. Oh and it also taught me to eat more Italian food- it really is delicious!

The most important question you can ask

Over the past few weeks, since my last blog, I have been fortunate enough to attend conferences where I have heard some truly inspirational people speak. Their words have moved me and made me really think about things.  I’ve listened to influential people and those who are on the front line, teaching children, talk about their experiences, their ideas and I’ve been given time to process these on my train journeys back from conferences.  Part of the purpose of my blog is to help me gather my thoughts, into a metaphorical basket rather like Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall on a wild mushroom hunt.  Unlike Hugh, I’m not going to preach at you about why eating foraged foods is so good for the environment and why we should all pay £17.80 for an organic duck (by the way, if I lived in Hugh’s massive house and commanded a massive fee for TV appearances where I got to basically do what I do every day, I’d be happy to eat organic duck, bathed in a jus of reduced wild mushrooms, off a plate made of locally sourced slate).

So here’s the big thought- in my role as head teacher, I set the standard for how things need to be. From how children walk along the corridor to how well the data in the school is managed, and in between all that other stuff about teaching and learning.  But, I’m not the person that delivers that standard most of the time.  I have a team of amazing people who work their socks off on a daily basis to reach the standard.  They put their hearts and souls into their work, allowing our children to make amazing progress and they achieve what they want to nearly all of the time.  So, what is the most important thing I can do to keep this happening?  Well, the people that I heard speak and my long experience has told me that nearly everyone in my school already has the talent and ability to do a brilliant job, so the thing I need to do is to ask this question-

What can I do to help you do your job better?

I was always reluctant to ask this question. I had pre-programmed a set response to the answer I was expecting to hear.  In asking this question, I can show that I trust my staff.  I know they are doing a great job, they know the high standard expected of them and whilst monitoring and training still goes on, I want them to know that I realise their skill levels and appreciate the way they are able to work.

I expected answers like-

Stop asking me to mark books!

Take Freddy out of my class and put him somewhere else!

Give me a longer holiday.

Pay me more.

I do occasionally get such responses but that just leads to a deeper discussion. What are the things that stop you being able to do your job as well as you would like?

The answers you will get may enable you to see things differently. They will challenge you but enlighten you to a new perspective and although you may not be able to do all of the things requested, the fact that you asked is worth a lot.

Right, I’m off to a farmers market to get some hand-caught scallops for tea!

Starting my blog

Well, this is it.  I’ve joined the 21st Century and begun my very own blog.  This all came about through my appraisal with the governors here at Green Park.  We were talking about whether or not I should apply to be a National Leader of Education ( a topic I plan to blog about in much more detail at a later date).  The short story is that I decided not to, but it led to more thoughts around how I could share my experiences and ideas with a wider audience.  Not that in any way do I believe people ought to take any notice of what I say, but simply so that I can have a vehicle to gather my daily brainwaves and possibly organise these into a cohesive structure.  So, here it is.  My blog.  Today, my thoughts turn to the weather.  Here in Dover, it’s cold, raining and blowing a gale outside.  Across the country, schools are closing due to the snow.  When head teachers have to make the decision to close their schools, I can guarantee they won’t spend the day lounging on the sofa, sipping hot chocolate.  If they are anything like me, their day will have started at least an hour before it normally should.  Phone calls to locals, to see what the weather is like, will be followed by more phone calls or web surfing to see what other schools are doing.  All this in a window of time pressure to ensure any decision reached is communicated in time for people to know and not make a journey.  The rest of the day will be spent thinking about the next day- will the site be safe? Will the school be warm? Has it flooded?  Often, Heads will endeavour (against advice from the police) to get to school, just to be sure they are there and are in control.  Today, my school had barely adequate heating and water dripping through the roof as if it had been installed by the Acme Colander Branch inc.

As heads, we have to think on our feet, be reactive, but really good schools will have detailed and thorough plans- how will the staff get in/home?  How will the site be warm and safe?  How will we let people know?

A very great head teacher colleague of mine, gave me a sound piece of advice when I started leading my first school.  He told me to note every decision I made regarding closing the school, note the time and the reason.  Police use such a technique when recording the investigation of a crime!  I’ve done it ever since.  It provides me with a security blanket of sense.  You see, people will always disagree with your decision.  It’s inevitable, but it is your decision.  Your face will be on the front page of the local rag if something goes wrong and even after you’ve checked the web for the 15th time and seen that the school up the road has stayed open despite the 10ft blizzard, it’s still your decision.  Don’t feel guilty.  Feel responsible.  And in between the phone calls, have a sip of something warm and enjoy the peace that being at home can provide.  You’ll probably get more done today than you ever do at school!