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