Headteacher’s Update

 

Into the Unknown…

The training for headship covered many things; leadership, management, data, finance and vision, but it never covered global pandemic, so whilst some of the facets of that training have certainly helped, there has been a lot that has been learnt on the job.

This summer has been spent planning the COVID re-opening – risk assessments, extensions, one-way systems and all – whilst juggling the grades crisis that hit all the headlines. When I communicated with a local politician, I asked whether the Department for Education wanted me to focus on the COVID re-opening or sorting out the grading chaos for our 300+ studnets. Of course, there was no answer – though we both knew the answer was “both”.

This week the news about facemasks dribbled out after decisions taken in Scotland and then, at the very end of the final ‘holiday’ week, we learnt that for the Monday of opening week we’d have Tiers 1-4 in place for different types of opening. The risk assessments were done, the processes were in place, the communication was rolling through, and then it was thrown up in the air again. Of course, this is a challenging and fast-moving situation, it is not easy for anyone, but with decisions having to be made using the best information available, you only want it to be clear and with you as soon as possible.

The first week of term will see us communicating the COVID-safe systems to the staff who lead them, then to the students who will join the staff in following them, but we also have on-going decisions to make on masks, tiers, assemblies, school events, and so on. This will keep being a live topic and regardless, though we can mitigate the threat, we can never eliminate it.

The facemasks one is interesting. Today – on 29 August – we are going with optional usage in communal areas but this may change as the week rolls through.

The situation with face masks is not simplistic. There is no real call to wear them in classes as learning would be very tough and that is the main point of the students coming in. How do 30+ children hear one person with a muffled voice ? How does a French teacher assess speaking skills ? How does a DT teacher give instructions in a busy workshop or kitchen ? Equally, in the canteen / eating classrooms, they’ll need to be taken off to get the food into mouths. The real area where they may become necessary will be the corridors which will take in perhaps no more than 20mins per day and where the risk is already due to be mitigated by one way systems, staggered arrivals / departures, staff supervision, etc. Is it feasible that compulsory face masks will be expected ? Absolutely. Do we think this full step is needed at this point ? No. Would we support a child / family who felt it would be safer for them in the corridors ? Of course.

From a personal perspective, recent weeks have had literally hundreds of positive parent messages – which really meant a lot. Conversely, one parental email this week said I was not prepared to take “tough decisions” and preferred to “sit on the fence”, whilst another locally posted message commented that “Mr Allman doesn’t appear to be the brightest student in the class” (no disagreement here J). There is no complaint on this – nowadays it

is the Headteacher’s lot to take this on the chin – but it does illustrate that there can be vehement feelings regarding what should and should not be done in schools.

What will we do then ? Well, we’ll certainly listen. We’ll take on professional and government advice. We’ll respond quickly to what comes at us. We’ll do our absolute best to help ensure COVID is abated, catch-up is secured and our students’ and staff’s sanity is restored by the comfort of welcome routine. As always, we’ll plot our own course, within our own specific context, and we’ll still do our best to be open and frank with those closest to us.

We’ll keep our fingers crossed that this is good enough and that we all come through the next few months safe and well.

Matt Allman
Headteacher
September 2020

 

Algorithms & Soothsayers

It was this week that Boris Johnson informed us that the grades fiasco was simply down to a “mutant algorithm” which was one-way of describing what has probably been up amongst the biggest fiascos in British educational history.

Certainly, the last 2-3 weeks have been an exhausting trial – for students, parents, teachers and anyone connected to the whole sorry tale.

One a personal level, I have tried to explain why universities have removed places before grades have been finalised (it made no sense to me), tried to explain a government predictor (that I never really believed in), and tried (and often failed) to give the definite answers to individual questions that stemmed from ever-changing national policy. Often those involved are justifiably fraught and when I can’t answer it does not help. For a generation all too often labelled as ‘snowflake’, they have had to come through a blizzard that no other cohort ever had to face.

Historically, schools, and school leaders, have lived or died by their data. School judgements were at times made solely on what the data said; no matter what the school was like, how the school as working, or how the school was improving. School leaders could change based on those scores – like a football manager who misses out on a Champions League place, though without the life-changing pay-out. Thankfully, OFSTED have assured the teaching profession that is no longer the case – and they would argue it never had been – but the confirmation was still a welcome statement to hear.

The government algorithm largely ignored teacher grades, and was more based on teacher rankings in the class. It then took into account Year 6 SATs scores, what a school’s subject area had got over the last three years, and other indicators, that bore little relevance to the humans who were due to sit the exams. We had one subject area that had huge teacher shortages three years ago, though we have strong new teaching staff now, but the legacy of

those historic results was inflicted on the students of today. This meant that the individual was labelled by the school and area they were in, like schools they were labelled by data, an outlook which was thankfully overturned, but had (at least partly) applied to schools for all too long. Context should never be an excuse for a school, but it is a factor on the lives of those who commit to working in it.

In an area of ‘Disadvantage’ the data will more likely be ‘lower’, or even “patchy”, and so this year’s students in those areas were inevitably going to be more adversely affected. Those schools can often struggle to climb the league table rankings as the scoring system is weighed against them, just like the students facing the “mutant algorithm”. Elsewhere, if you were in a class of 5 or less then the teachers’ grades stood from the off – which seemed to help independent schools which more often have smaller class sizes. What did Orwell say in ‘Animal Farm’ – “All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others”.

Of course, teacher predicted grades were shot down as being over-generous and to some extent this will be true. Teachers are not soothsayers, if they were we’d all be predicting the lottery numbers, and I could throw some of my winnings at that sports’ hall roof. Instead, teachers say what the child is capable of – what they have shown they can do at their best. It is a call, not a certainty, and it can’t factor in the problem at home the night before, nerves on the day, or the critically misunderstood question. We cross-referenced our ‘predictions’ against report grades to ensure we were being fair, these had already factored in varying types of ‘mocks’, classwork, assessments, homework, and the like, and though they will not be an exact replica of what would have happened on the day they would be a fair representation.

Even so, there are some students who feel a grade was too low, (though no one got in touch to say their grade was too high), but the good news is that the next stage of life will iron out any under or over prediction. In the long-term, things will even out, and at least with the teacher predictions, opportunities are much less likely to be lost. If this year’s exam cohort fall short next time, then that is their responsibility, but at least it will be down to them, and not where they lived, what their parents did, what they did in Year 6, or whether a subject teacher became seriously ill three years ago.

We are still awaiting a clear contingency for what will happen if we are in this position again – but my hope is that we will not be. Not next year, and not ever.

Matt Allman
Headteacher
August 2020

 

Headteacher’s Update – July 2020

We have ended the term with something of a sigh of relief but also a real awareness that we have a very busy year ahead of us. I am currently reading headlines regarding concerns about a mental health crisis for young people, rows about undeserved teacher pay increases, rumours about a second wave, fears about the proliferation of County Lines in towns and cities, and that’s all before we get to implement our health and safety plans for the new school year.

When I think back over lockdown it certainly inspires a sharp intake of breath. It has definitely taught us all a lot, not just about school, but also about family life and wider relationships.

Certainly, with home learning, there is a lot I am delighted with, but other elements that with the benefit of hindsight I would have wanted done differently.

The Streams video lessons numbered 330 by the end of lockdown and this is definitely something we will extend for revision and catch up next year. On top of this, many staff set-up PowerPoint lessons with video explanations integrated into them too. Even more impressive was the 392 Teams seminars that were rolled out over the last 3-4 weeks of term. We wanted to make sure it was all set-up in case there was a second lockdown so we are delighted we got there. The rules of using Teams / Zoom for the office are a bit different to running them with 1,200+ children and it initially proved a nightmare to secure safeguarding permissions and parameters. However, if we’d known how long we’d be out in March, then we’d have started it sooner. We will though keep the seminar approach as we still don’t believe this style of ‘teaching’ works for ‘normal’ lessons with large class sizes.

These advances were made whilst wrestling with a mountain of other new, or at least extended, initiatives, but seeing the sacrifices made in other sectors, we were more than happy to do our bit.

On top of the online learning provision we also… opened for Key Worker and Vulnerable children throughout the lockdown – including Easter and May Half-Term… ran ‘safe-and-well’ home visits for targeted children… staged in-school mentoring for SEND and targeted children… co-ordinated food vouchers… supported a Staffordshire County Council food distribution hub on our site…made fortnightly tutor phone-calls… made more regular calls for ‘Cause for Concern’ students… liaised with social workers and other such professionals… provided free laptops for targeted children… provided free internet dongles for others… staged ‘virtual’ events like the ‘Sizzler’ and Sports Day… staged online assemblies… disseminated many other activities on various platforms… and the list does go on and on. I also recall our staff coming into school in the first days of lockdown with sleeves pulled over hands for every door and a very real sense of national fear before we quickly pulled ourselves together and cracked on.

More recently, we were also delighted to see an overwhelming proportion (95%+) of our Years 10s and 12s return to school in June when the government allowed us to re-open. It was fantastic to see them, and whilst Year 10s got the chance to have 2 hour small-group sessions with each of their subject teachers, the Year 12s got weekly 2 hour classes for each subject. Our Year 6s matched their attendance rate in their primary transition sessions and we were delighted we went the extra mile for them.

Elsewhere, we have already undertook a huge amount of site work and things are not stalling over the break. Both mobile classrooms have now been totally refurbished and there has been a mass of redecoration across the site. We worked with Staffordshire County Council to re-cover a large portion of roofing across the sports centre and, in partnership with the Greywood Multi-Schools Trust and our fantastic PTFA, we are extending the canteen for September. There is no doubt that our switch to academy status facilitated the major works here and there will be more to come too.

Meanwhile, our teachers are spending the summer re-designing courses so that we can ensure all students, but especially those starting or mid-way through their exams programmes, can catch-up on the inevitable gaps. We have also re-jigged our budget to recruit extra teachers in key subjects – not easy with an inexpensive rod and bait and a very small pool to fish in – so that key exam groups can benefit from smaller class sizes as we whiz through content. This is going to be far from easy, but we genuinely believe that during lockdown our students, staff and parents responded superbly and are confident that the vast majority of Friary students will be ahead of their competition in other schools.

The last big summer job will be the Health & Safety plans for the full re-opening and I am currently surrounded by risk assessments. This is not much fun, and it does seem like ‘Mission Impossible’ to totally eliminate all risks, but we have taken the approach that if we are sensible and realistic then we can do a great deal to make things as safe as they can be.

Every single one of us will have a story to tell about our lockdown and we will all have dealt with challenges that we had never even imagined. At our school, we would not claim to have done the most, but would claim to have done our bit, and that ‘bit’ would not have been possible without the backing of a fantastic bunch of staff, so many committed and upbeat children, and a whole heap of wonderful parents.

Fingers crossed you all get to enjoy the holiday and let’s hope the second wave is just part of saying goodbye to your child on their first day back at school.

Enjoy the summer – wherever it does or does not take you.

Matt Allman
Headteacher
The Friary School

 

The Comeback

Amidst media recrimination and blame-games, and ever-changing government advice, we as a school are delighted that the comeback is in sight.

The government’s secondary advice came in much later than the primary advice, and we were struggling to see how the newspaper photos of ‘bubbled’ primary classrooms and playgrounds could possibly play out in our school. Classes change all the time, specialist rooms are required, numbers are much bigger, but although we are still not crystal clear, we do have a clear plan we are putting into place.

Our first priority will be targeting students who we are more concerned about, although whilst we read many schools are going just with 1-to-1 meetings, for us this is just the first phase. We want to ensure that every child, sees every one of their teachers, at least once. The idea is that they check where they are, what they are missing, and what they need to do next. Even then, we know this won’t be enough. We still don’t know what the Year 10 and Year 12 exams will look like or when the exams will take place. It is a difficult one to reconcile when you are being told to sort catch-up, without knowing what we have to catch-up, nor for when. However, we have to do what we can and we’ll use our judgement to deliver our best.

We do know that safety will be forefront in the minds of parents so we are looking to ensure we give clear guidance on what we are doing and how things will operate. Our students are not small children, so will need to take on the responsibility for their welfare, but we also have the responsibility of putting the framework in place for them to do it, and before our opening on W/B 15 June we will 100% ready.

Equally, there is an important job to do with those Year 7-9 students who won’t be back in till September. It certainly struck me that weeks in isolation means there is a lack of face-to-face contact and however good online work and tutor calls may be they lack that human interaction that we all need. Consequently, we are planning to roll-out more and more video lessons and are working on a plan to use Teams (like Zoom) lessons for smaller groups where we think they can be more effective.

Finally, I wanted to acknowledge the image in some of the media, and from some elements of government, that teachers, or more accurately teacher unions, are keen to block a return to school and to be blunt are just seeking to skive. Whatever, the standpoint of these national players, I can be absolute in saying that I have not seen this in any staff at our school. They have come in even during the most fraught of pandemic times without complaint, they have worked through holidays without complaint, and by far the most common refrain is they are bored with this and want the children back.

So, we have a re-opening, and we are hopeful for full re-opening in September. We want everyone to be safe, but we want everyone to be back. Whatever, Boris, Keir, or X or Y union leader say, this is something that all the conversations I have suggest is something we all as teachers, parents, or both, want.

Matt Allman
Headteacher
The Friary School

May 2020

Opening During Lockdown

We are now just over a month into lockdown and this is certainly the strangest of times. The journey into school is through empty streets, but the silence in our usually vibrant school is almost deafening, as our skeleton staff supervise a small number of Key Worker children and murmur welfare calls home to their tutees.

We have no news on the re-opening but are using the time to prepare for it. We are already installing extra hand sanitiser dispensers, building changes are planned to improve rooms that would be best placed for any re-opening, and our staffing structure is set-up to facilitate home learning. We are getting in a glut of Health & Safety forms from our provider so are learning more and more what re-opening will entail.

We are learning too about home learning as we go along. An early lesson was that though our systems were already well set-up in Show My Homework, we saw that we had rushed too much work to begin with. This was largely because we did not want criticism that we were not on-the ball, but it quickly become a swamp so we have scaled back and are aiming for a more manageable load for students and parents. Those of us who are staff and parents have already learn that home learning not straight-forward.

We are keeping everything crossed we can move toward some sort of re-opening in the Summer Term but are awaiting government announcements like everyone else. We learn of changes when you do, but at the moment the focus is rightly on health care. It is though likely that school re-opening will become a bigger issue when things ease but we’ll have to wait and see when that is.

Finally, thanks again for the overwhelming number of kind and generous messages we have received over the last few weeks. When you feel your back against the wall, you soon learn who your friends are. We are lucky to have so many.

Matt Allman
Headteacher
The Friary School

April 2020

 

Healthy Minds

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, or William & Kate, have been one of the very many high-profile people involved in flagging up mental health support for young people. Many of us will remember a teenage William dealing with the emotions caused by walking behind his mother funeral cortege, and his wife recently commented in their work with Young Minds that: “A child’s mental health is just as important as their physical health.”

As a school, we have long prioritised this issue with our students and amidst the relentless drive for exam results, sporting success, rewards / sanctions, and so on, we have consistently pursued an agenda of fulfilling one’s personal well-being needs. Of course, when you face a child experiencing difficulties you always think could we have done more, could we have prevented this, could we change what we do. Every child matters for us, really matters, and despite the professional stance towards our job, we’d be lying if we said we never felt a more personal pain when we face a child in need.

The support we offer is varied and at many levels. It could be from the dozen or so external mentors involved with the school… specialist links with more counsellors for issues like bereavement, drugs, etc… our close relationship with Dr Cameron Shields as our local CAMHS lead… high-level staff training… Student Support and pastoral leads meeting weekly to discuss vulnerable children… specific Focus Weeks… targeted support schemes… key times, such as exams, are weaved into advice… PHSE sessions too… a national E-Safety Award for this area of high risk… incentives and rewards… and the list does go on. Perhaps the focus we most prioritise is a willingness to talk and listen – not always easy in a family circle, never mind a hectic 1,000+ school – and even my door will get plenty of children dropping in for a chat or a request for help.

Mental health though is very much an internalised issue and unfortunately, though we can look for all the signs, we cannot read minds. A child will spend around 14% of their year in school. The other 86% is spent a home, much of it asleep, much of it online. This means we can offer only so much in the time we have, and cannot put a protective shield around a child 24/7, even though we often would like to. When we think of how support services have been cut in recent years, we can see that there will inevitably be gaps; Young Minds report that in 2017-2018 half of the 11,482 children needed treatment waited more than 18 weeks following the initial assessment and only 14% began treatment in 4 weeks. This is even presuming that the child will open up and recognise there is a problem in the first place.

One of our latest developments is creating a Year 8 Character Award for September 2020 which will be based around our Friary Ethic and focus on personal development and well-being both in and out of school. Year 8 sees the teenage years begin and we think this programme will help by providing an additional focus and emphasis that we can harness as a means of building up our students’ capacity to take care of themselves, as well as those around them. We often reflect that when our Year 11s (or Year 13s) march out of the doors for the last time then all the support we have provided melts away and, though they are rarely alone, they will never likely have the level of backing they will have had at secondary school. We can only work towards preparing them for this moment, just like readying them for their exams, their workplace, and their relationships.

We take our responsibility for each child’s mental health as being the here and now, and the years ahead. If we can provide the lifebelt to rescue a child in their school years, or the foundations to support the ability to cope in later life, then we have done our job. It won’t be measured on a league table, or be graded a 9-1, but if we achieve this then we have achieved such a lot.

Matt Allman
Headteacher
The Friary School

February 2020

 

As Unbalanced as the Premier League ?

The recent publication of the Department for Education’s performance tables was a big deal for schools. Having been a Headteacher in a school that is performing well, and another with its back against the wall, there is a mix of anticipation and fear. Will the school stack up favourably ? Will the governors or trustees be happy ? Will staff get a boost or a kick in the teeth ? Will the Head keep their job ? How many parents look at them anyway ?

Nowadays, the performance tables largely judge school’s on their Progress 8 figure for Year 11 results. Previously, schools were ranked on attainment which simply listed schools on how may A*-C grades they got. This was obviously skewed towards schools with a More Able intake, so unsurprisingly the usual trend saw grammar schools do best, then schools in more affluent communities, then the rest all followed in behind.

Progress 8 was about levelling this playing field by comparing school’s Year 11’s results with how well the children did in their Year 6 SATs. This was to show what progress had been made in each students’ best 8 subjects (hence Progress 8) from the beginning to the end of their secondary education. The students are compared on English, Maths, often Science (Double), and then the other best four results they got. The theory was that the school’s with more challenging cohorts would not be penalised.

Even so, Progress 8 is not without its faults. The scoring system does not take into account the school’s cohort or catchment – a partly understandable legacy of Michael Gove’s determination that expectations should not be limited for any child.

However, those schools with higher Disadvantaged / Pupil Premium students (usually measured by whether they have ever needed Free School Meals) are hampered by the fact that statistically those children will make less progress than those that are not Disadvantaged. On average they will be 3 grades lower in their Best 8 than the national average. Consequently, can we really say a school with 60%+ of Disadvantaged children can be fairly compared to a school with less than 10% ? Can a school drawing from a deprived city community be fairly compared to a school sitting in a leafy village ?

Elsewhere, if you look at the Top 10 schools in the performance tables they all have a common trend: high numbers of EAL students. EAL students are children whose first language is not English. The average % of EAL student in schools is 16.9% but in the top Progress 8 schools their portion is far higher. Only two of the Top Ten have less than 50%, and even they are well above the national average. Eight out of ten are treble, or even five times, higher.

Conversely, the ethnic group with perhaps the biggest problem in terms of making good progress in schools is White British: especially White British working-class boys. The evidence is clear that certain ethnic groups perform far better than others with factors including aspiration and opportunity playing a part. Elsewhere, a child entering the UK education system in say Year 6 might score poorly in their SATs but once their English improves their progress (and the school’s results) will rocket from that artificially low base. Again, can a mixed school with 90+% White British students be fairly compared to Tauheedul Islam Girls High School (82% EAL) in Blackburn who top the performance tables ? Clearly, they are doing an amazing job, but the argument is not a debate on their excellence, but rather the justness of the comparison .

The list goes on… In 2017-2018 London schools had an extra £800 per pupil compared to schools in the East Midlands – is a comparison fair ? You can compare figures of SEND students… Looked After Children… Girls v Boys… Context is everything.

In many ways these performance tables are like the Premier League. The context of the club is everything. If Aston Villa or Sheffield United stay up this season, will that be a lesser performance than Manchester City gaining a Champion’s League place ? How much was the excitement for the greatest Premier League win – Leicester City – down to their flowing football or their context compared to their far bigger spending rivals ?

The reality is that the performance tables tell a story but not the whole story. They are similar to OFSTED Reports that give snapshot – in OFSTED’s case, often from years before – that somehow becomes a daily reality in the mind of a reader or prospective parent. It is often schools in a tougher catchment that struggle to recruit, and when league tables and OFSTED slam the school, then jobs there become all the more difficult to fill. It is dangerous when the means of judgement become a barrier to improvement. Indeed, The Fair Secondary School Index, published recently by the University of Bristol and the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, reveals that: “More than half of schools currently classed as ‘underperforming’ would no longer fall into this category if pupil background was taken into account in progress measures.”

There are numerous ways to compare schools and you can view the different performance tables.

  •  You can check out the DfE Performance Tables here.
  • You can compare Staffordshire secondary schools here.
  • You can evaluate schools – based on 2018 results though – through the Fair Secondary School Index here:

I’ll leave you with two final thoughts.

My favourite performance tables story comes from watching the news about five years ago when a government minister or the like came onto the national news and expressed his anger at school performance. He was incredulous when he said: “Do you know that almost half of secondary schools are below average!” I guess that’s deal with averages isn’t it ?

Finally, as a school, we very much view the DfE Performance Tables as a quick check on how we are doing, but not the be-all-and-end all. By the time they have come out we are already well set on driving up the new Year 11s for the following summer. We could be up, we could be down, but as long as we know we have done the best we possible could for each and every student then we’ll take that. Rudyard Kipling said: “If you can meet success and failure and treat them both as imposters, then you are a balanced man”. We celebrated last summer’s GCSE results with our Year 11s back in mid-August, and as a senior team had a quiet celebratory drink that evening, but it is now November, and our eyes are already fixed on Summer 2020.

Life moves on, time passes, and that’s one measurement no one can argue with.

Matt Allman
Headteacher
The Friary School

November 2019

 

Not Skirting the Issue

The summer holidays bring a gnawing in the pit of your stomach. Two ‘Judgement Days’ are looming. You’ll not sleep the night before, you’ll need no alarm, and the adrenalin will be pumping. It’s Results Day.

Thankfully, students and staff did amazingly – I know every press release says that – but they really did. I’ve been primed to talk to all and sundry about Jaguar apprenticeships, Russell Group, hard-won ‘4s’, but they’ve not been the hot topic. Instead, I’ve been talking skirts.

Skirts have never been my specialist subject – not my Mastermind first pick – but as a school we made a change and this term saw D-Day. Our new school skirts created a fuss, certainly a cost to parents, and I’d be lying if I said every child was over-enamoured. Even so, the girls (and parents) have been fantastic and I’ve had more compliments about the skirts than anything else. Sure, we’ve had great exam feedback, but the skirts are the show-stopper!

So was change worthwhile? Will new skirts make students safer? Bring better results? Well the simple answer is ‘No’, but often there isn’t a simple answer.

The summer saw the latest wave of our refurbishment programme. Does a painted wall bring more 9s? No. Does a smart, clean environment make work more pleasurable and show we mean business? Absolutely.

Every Year 10 and 11 student received a personalised Headteacher postcard? Does that guarantee exam success? No. Does it show that each student is unique, prized and cared for? Absolutely.

Does the new skirt mean everyone passes English and Maths? No. Does it instil pride, high expectations and bring a real buzz to the school year? Absolutely.

A school should pride itself on pursuing every marginal gain. Graft to nudge every individual over their line. Standing still as a school, accepting the status quo, resting on laurels or reputation, will only let a child’s education drift and fail badly. If a school isn’t relentless in championing their students’ education, then who is ?

So if you drop in on The Friary School’s Open Evening (24 September), you’ll hear the rallying cry to go again, to keep refreshing school life, and to continually move forward. Last year’s students shone, but next year’s need to shine brighter still, and fighting every child’s corner is a commitment not to be skirted.

Matt Allman
Headteacher
The Friary School

September 2019