When The World Won’t Listen…

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It’s all been rather Hirsch focused around the place lately. We were lucky enough to host E D Hirsch, or Don as he was introduced, when he visited the UK to give three lectures. His first on these shores. As well as one in London for Policy Exchange and one in Cambridge he gave one in Norwich last week at The Hewett Academy. I’m going to blog on that at another time if I can get my hands on his notes and do a write up for those that weren’t there – and those that were who want to go back over what was said.

For this post I thought I’d pick up on something from a piece I read that Hirsch had referenced in his Cambridge talk.

I’m always going from one text to the next exploring references and I suppose at times not actually finishing the original source material. It always seems that when you’re on the internet it’s just far too easy to flit from one to another and end up somewhere you didn’t expect to be at all! This time I found myself reading, “Cultural Pathways Through Universal Development” by Greenfield et al.

The section that struck me particularly was around the exploration of the ‘Cultural Values’ approach and the distinction that is drawn between independent and interdependent pathways of development. What is suggested is that this is linked to ethnotheories (beliefs and ideas concerning the nature of the child and socialisation) and that there is, “a cognitive separation of self and world – as a result of the Western institution of formal schooling,” while in Africa for example there is an emphasis on, “contributing to the social world.”

This brought to mind an assembly that I had done where I discussed concept of Ubuntu or harmony which was used by leaders such as Desmond Tutu or Nelson Mandela. Ubuntu suggests that we all have not just a duty, but a link to each other that means we all either succeed or fail based on a collective sense of success of failure. This in turn echoed words whose origin I’m embarrassed to have forgotten but used to teach concerning the idea that while one man is weeping the happiness of millions counts for nothing.

I had always used that assembly and read those words and thought that as schools and teachers we were the vehicle that encouraged social responsibility and framed a sense of community. While wanting to make sure each and every one of my students could be as successful as possible I’d always stressed that they should determine what that success meant and wanted to make sure that each of them realised we could only get individual success through shared goals, ideals and virtues. Yet here I read that, “High socio-economic status and formal education are associated with a more individualistic orientation” and that the practices that reinforce this can even be seen to begin before birth. So not only are we leading kids in the wrong direction by having them in school in the first place but we couldn’t do anything about averting their journey to selfishness as it’s written in the stars – or at least the cultural norms – and when we move to the ecocultural approach, maternal behaviours. Seems Larkin has some basis in universal development.

Just to make sure we go full circle with this and get back to the 87 year old emeritus professor I’m going to draw on a question that I put to him that evening and the twenty minutes or so of one to one time I was lucky enough to get over dinner. Following an exchange with Tait Coles I asked Don Hirsch the following;

Some teachers in the UK feel that, as Bourdieu puts it education can lead to “cultural reproduction.” With this in mind what or where do you feel the source of our new core knowledge should be and how can we ensure a sense of pluralism in the search for it?

It was really good to see him respond to the question with the genuine excitement of someone that wants to discuss and debate ideas. The general perception of Hirsch is someone with a very specific and fixed approach and it was good to see these myths dispelled when he spoke of how he was frustrated by any side of a political spectrum trying to “own” what he had written and that political ideology was a block to learning. In response to the question of reproduction he said that he wasn’t going to argue that it didn’t but that reproduction was the first step to change, citing the Black Panthers as an example of a group that had a clear understanding of the language and the dominant culture of the day and who used this understanding in order to challenge orthodoxy.

When I shared this with Tait he asked about Ferguson or the Umbrella Revolution and whether or not there was a voice there. He asked if social media gave an alternative voice as opposed to simply replicating that already used by those in society with the power. Didn’t things like #blacklivesmatter or #icantbreathe suggest that other voices were being used and being heard?

I would have liked to be sharp enough to have followed up Hirsch’s answer with the Ferguson question and got his response but I’ll give what I think he might have said blended a bit with my own thoughts on social media. I’d imagine he’d maybe suggest that the lack of what was seen as an authoritative or legitimate voice was the reason for those lives being seen as less valuable than others in the first place and that had they been able at least to access – without necessarily being shaped by – the mainstream cultural knowledge or literacy then these situations wouldn’t have arisen. That if the black or other minority voice was given the same credence as others there wouldn’t be a need to go to twitter and other alternative forms. Now of course any right minded person would know that these voices and these lives are not less valid and that the suggestion would seem to be that they lose their own voice if they take the language of the oppressor to be given permission to enter the conversation. I’m not sure that Hirsch or anyone would disagree that there’s injustice there but perhaps we can protect the message even if we change the form of expression. His conversation seemed to suggest that far from any sense of acceptance of status quo or that hegemony was something to be strived for he was recognising the inequality and suggesting that the strategy to overcome it was to use the weapons and language of the oppressors to get in the room and make the changes. In the tent rather than outside of it.

Personally I’m not  incredibly convinced that hashtags etc. change a huge amount and wonder perhaps if the use of them gives more an appearance of a voice and potential for change than any genuine impact. There’s also a part of me that thinks governments and institutions are happy to allow these avenues for expression as they fulfil the speaker’s need to feel they are being listened to and affirmed – even with that affirmation coming from a group that are likely to share their views – while not having to genuinely engage and make any changes as a result. In examples of debate ranging from radio phone ins, to Question Time to the dispatch box those controlling the agenda will point out that the negative voices can be just that and offer nothing concrete while the positive ones are coherent, concrete and offer something that shows an understanding of the topic, the debate and crucially the rules of engagement. Whether there is a genuine intention on behalf of those in the position of power to listen or not, the nature of the opposition can too often provide an opportunity to dismiss it as those with the power were able to suggest that the arguments weren’t ones that warranted attention, response or credence because of the way in which they were framed or offered. I’d link this to twitter through things like twitter storms and hashtags etc or adding Nicky Morgan’s twitter handle at the end of a tweet to give yourself the impression and the solace that you’ve really stuck it to someone.

At this point another voice joins the conversation, that of Giles Barrow who I have mentioned in previous blogs (and whose piece on Educator as Cultivator you can and should  download from the same webpage) and along with Tait is someone who I thoroughly enjoy discussions with and again in a similar vein to my PuNk friend always energises me.

Through email exchanges Giles commented that he problem with social media is that despite having a permanent existence its very nature makes any influence transitory.

He went on to say that suppressed groups can’t rely on hashtags to change anything as it’s not seen as serious or sustainable and that those in power will wait for the wave to be crashed out by a subsequent one. As he put it, “ They may accommodate the language and format, but if there’s little direct relationship with power it remains ungrounded, separate from the landscape in which the subjugation takes place.” While there can be individuals that are affected or indeed hounded out by such action sustained systematic change has not been brought about by individuals tapping on gadgets in private. The reason for this he suggested was that reactive tapping doesn’t have to make a difference and if doesn’t equate to changes in democratic participation, targeted voting patterns and so on then the establishment are able to ignore it and re-frame it in the ways I’ve suggested above.

None of this means it’s not wrong that voices are subjugated, that alternative voices shouldn’t be heard, or that their language forms are wrong or less valid. It’s rather that they are easier to dismiss because they don’t conform to what’s expected and that it is harder to influence and change anything when those with the power can simply point to that difference as a reason not to listen and as a way to suggest illegitimacy. Seems that we need to use the accepted forms and the structures that exist in order to create a platform where we can provide some equality of voice – we knowingly reproduce it in order to revolutionise it.

And perhaps that was what Hirsch was saying and where we have to look to ensure that we don’t allow formal schooling to lead to the selfishness and individualism that Greenfield suggested. Just because we provide the same framework, the same knowledge and the same language of those in power to those without it doesn’t mean that they have to turn out the same. If as educators we want to reform and change an unfair society we must make those we care for aware of the world that they are in and what the rules of that game are. If we sit outside of that world pining for change and angrily shouting, while not seeing that we can effect change by being part of that and working from within, we are as responsible for the hegemony as those happily chuckling at a ranty twitter timeline.

Lots of Love

Colin

 

 

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When you lay on awe on your bedroom floor…

So this post has taken some time to come. Delayed of course by all of the other stuff that gets in the way and becomes more important. I can remember a time when I used to traipse around Norwich in my clothes from Head in the Clouds with my cherry red DMs undone and my army surplus bag full of spare batteries for my Walkman and countless tapes that I would question anyone even daring to suggest that there was anything more important than music but along with a growing waistline and a developing vegetable patch these seem to the the things that age brings to us.

The other thing was of course choosing the music to include. Five songs? Seriously? Five? I’ve heard three from my iTunes library (give the 15 year old me with his pockets full of C90s and AA batteries a glance at that phenomenon!) since I started writing that I’d include but I have five. Not necessarily my favourite five songs or indeed artists – although there are some in there – but five that have been there as I’ve grown, shaped me or stood out, or just bring back memories of times, people and places. They’re in no order other than the one that they came out in when I decided, sitting on Peterborough station, to say sod it and commit to a list and here they come…

Re-Educating Rita by Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine.

I love Carter. I mean bloody love them. As a teenager they just kicked arse. Such cleaver lyrics and fantastic music and they just seemed to really enjoy what they were doing. I also loved the fact that you could play quite a lot of the songs pretty easily and singalong loudly after a good few cans of lager on a playing field in Brundall. I have a picture, literally and figuratively of one of my very best friends Jon Cudby hanging out of a school minibus on a trip to Yorkshire swigging from a can of coke that we had filled with Skol on the way up (lots spilt on the floor of the minibus, lots of deodorant sprayed to cover it, lots of suffocation for the rest of the journey) and it encapsulates everything about what we felt at that time. We were going to change the world and along with The Wonder Stuff and The Levellers , Carter were the writers of our anthems. And still continue to be. I went with Jon to their last ever gig earlier this year and saw the faces of people all around me who still clung to the passion and the thrill of the lyrics, who still wanted to smoke tabs and swig beer and chant. Even if the words were tinged with the sad reality that since they were written they are still as relevant because things haven’t changed in the way we thought they would, and we haven’t changed the world. We’ve just got older. got jobs and mortgages and our muscles have waved a little white flag.

Revival by Martine Girault

I was once told (probably by Jon cos he was smart and stuff like that) that I had a musical collection that would baffle Freud. I still don’t know quite what that meant but it is pretty diverse and I suppose it’s because I have lots of different musical interests and influences. A lot of this came from how diverse my friends and their interests were. I’ve bored everyone to tears with my stories of being a public schoolboy and,” how its not like you think honest and all that” but I really liked the fact that there were so many different interests and styles and things there and that you could be quite different without getting a smack so along with Jon who would seemed to have a mantra that once more than about ten people had heard of a band he’d go off them (I’m exaggerating but his diverse interests meant he kicked arse at Mike Reid’s Pop Quiz) I had another great friend Steve Grimmer who supplied me with hip hop, rap, R n B and acid jazz. I could have picked some Loose Ends for this slot, or De La or Tribe called Quest or maybe ‘There’s Nothing Like This‘ by Omar, which I still have on twelve inch and just love the sound of when the crackle leads into the opening bass line. But this spot goes to Martine Girault who seems, as The Wedding Present say with, “I haven’t heard this song in years, It never fails to start the tears,” (but thats Hobart Paving by St Etienne and a whole other world and blog post!) never fails to bring up memories of Great Yarmouth in the summer and hanging out by the arcades, playing Quasar and pretending to be basketball stars on the car park Steve worked in. This summer featured the dawn of the McFlurry with hot toffee sauce, biking down Regent Road to a seafront with killer hot dogs and a Radio One roadshow featuring East 17 and the Manic Street Preachers – both of whom seemed to be parody acts at the time   – and who wouldn’t want echoes of that?

Jerusalem by Billy Bragg (sort of!)

I think that Jerusalem encapsulates one of those inherent contradictions in life. Sung as a rugby anthem, the hymn of choice by many a public school (including mine) and yet written as a call to arms by a socialist who was basically saying no the lamb of God was not bloody seen wandering around England. It could be but you’ve got to do something about it and make it worthwhile. When Children in Need or Red Nose Day rolls around I always come off grumpy in the eyes of the kids by suggesting that these events are an indication not of how fantastic we are as a country, but rather that we are messed up to the point that we need these events to make a difference to people we should care about and look after as a matter of course. Not just as way to ease the conscience of businessmen who chuck in some cash and we can all look up to while they drive Ferraris around the countryside with Chris Evans or take Natasha Kaplinksi out for dinner. Blake had this nailed centuries ago with Holy Thursday, when the rich took the children from the poorhouse for a day and paraded them to show how generous they were in dressing them up but obscuring the rest of the year. £30 million to charity is fantastic, don’t get me wrong, but it’s about 50p per population head once or twice a year and if we all drank a pint less we could quadruple that on a weekly basis or even more and remove the need for Lenny Henry – a plus in itself surely?

I’ve chosen Billy’s version though because he has been instrumental in shaping my sense of music and identity for a long time and not least recently when it was my detracting from my current boss that led her to tell me to clear off and listen to my Bragg albums or come and see her and be part of something. I’ve always struggled with the idea of a national identity and get regular grief from friends for clinging to my Irish heritage (“How can you be bloody Irish, you were born in Great Yarmouth?!”) during the same rugby matches where I have to point out the origins of what they are singing – and that’s without getting near ‘Swing Low’. I suppose I’ve always just been uncomfortable with the darker sides of patriotism that seem to go alongside a celebration of being English. Clinging to a notion of Empire that the Waterboys had spot on with ‘ Old England’ and it’s “heroine eyes,” a nation that turns against you for sounding, looking, or acting different, a country that fails to recognise that it’s stronger and more beautiful because of the influences and nationalities that have visited its shores. A nation that to paraphrase Billy, and in turn, Kipling talk of an England and only England know. But reading Billy’s autobiography as part of my own search for belonging has made me feel that there can be a new patriotism. a progressive patriotism with no place for nationalism and segregation, but a place of celebration and integration, where the white keys and the black keys come together to make beautiful music (thanks Mr Agard). and we recognise that we’re all half English just like morris dancing, Morrissey and our patron saint. I think it’s some way off and I’m still the descendent of immigrants in the, “no blacks, no dogs, no Irish” era so I’ll always be sceptical but I’d get behind a St George’s Day celebration with that at it’s heart.

I also wonder what Billy (in some ways along with my friend Giles Barrow some sort of a conscience for me) would make of me and my role in a free school and as part of an academy trust. I like to think that he’d recognise, as someone that said he always saw that you could affect more change from within the system and trying to bring about change that way. that that’s what I want my work to be and that we won’t reform education by burying our heads and ignoring the changes or just shouting without taking real action to exercise our influence but I do equally think he might look at me and worry that I’ve, “turned from red to blue.”

Wednesday Morning 3 am by Simon and Garfunkel

“Talent Borrows, Genius Steals.” The Smiths nicked that from Oscar Wilde and while I haven’t stolen the influence of Simon and Garfunkel from Billy Bragg (he was 21 years when he nicked that song!) I was certainly buoyed and felt a sense of kinship when I read about his passion for them. This particular song stands out for me because of the back of the record cover that talks about the revolutionary spirt that they felt when writing their music and how they weren’t understood by those around them. Seems funny for a couple of folk musicians but Carter were folk musicians (and I’m sure Jim Bob is as much of a fan and a filthy half incher of ideas from Paul and Art as Billy – The Only Living Boy in where…?) and they caused a stir – at least in me and my contemporaries, and for more than knocking Schofield over (3.30 but you should really listen to the song)!

The record cover sticks in my memory because I remember reading it to my mum after dad had told me off for playing music so loud and making a racket with my guitar and asking why, in my misunderstood just expressing myself teenage way, they who had bought these records could own them and not understand what I was trying to express by playing Carter’s cover of This is how it Feels at top volume. Man. I was of course being an absolute dick and probably would have been quoting Larkin if I was that well read at that age and now look back as embarrassed as I would have been for having an acoustic guitar and thinking that it made me a protest singer! More recently with dad having his cancer diagnosis and taking him to chemo appointments Silver Haired Daddy has more resonance and reinforces what an absolute pain in the arse I was but this has better words and plus I can play it on the same guitar I have that he grabbed from me and threw down the stairs when I was once more terrorising the house with it. Wish he’d done it with that bloody violin I experimented with for a bit.

This Night has Opened My Eyes by The Smiths

Come on, you were waiting for Morrissey to turn up from the second you started reading. All along there were hints and allegations but this is where we’ve ended up. As I said at the start these aren’t my favourite songs or even my favourite songs by the artists in question but they are songs that stand out for me. ‘Hatful of Hollow‘ (that moment when ‘William…’ kicks in… oh my god) will always be my favourite Smiths album, not because I think it’s the best (‘Meat is Murder‘ takes that spot my friends) but because it was the first I heard and it opened my ears as well as my eyes. I remember taking it out of Great Yarmouth library (imagine borrowing records from a library! Imagine libraries…)  and putting the needle on the record player that was under the stairs at home and hearing Johnny Marr’s guitar and Morrissey’s voice for the first time and having a feeling that I won’t try to put into words but anyone who had a heart would recognise and share. As soon as I played it I knew that the band would be part of who I was for years to come and now they sit there in my list of longest relationships (1. Mum and Dad, 2. Best friend Al, 3. Brother James, Barber Steve, 4. The Smiths, 5. My wife ) and one that I can’t see coming to an end at any time soon. You know those bands who when you hear a record you feel entranced, the world moves in slow mo and you have to stop everything else and listen? That’s The Smiths every time for me and ‘This Night…’ was the song that I remember listening to on my Walkman in the back of the car on the tape I’d recorded the record on after borrowing it (don’t judge me you all did it!) and driving through town in the dark knowing that in the world there were people that felt the same as me and I always had somewhere to go and someone to talk to.

So that’s it. My five. Like I said not necessarily my top five and not necessarily the five I’d come to next week or next month. I might include The Milton Brothers that I used as my first tab when it was my turn to teach Guitar Club a song, I might go for some Wedding Present that I first had played to me by a boy a couple of years above in the room you had to go to if you weren’t doing games or Don’t You Forget About Me that was played at the party I got invited to as a result of being there. I would probably include the Leonard Cohen song that I still listen to on cassette to hear the point where the tape got caught up and both I and my friend Darren launched out of our freezing caravan bedrooms into the kitchen heated and lit by the gas cooker we had left on for warmth and saved the tape from being destroyed by the cheap radio we had for entertainment. My mum would wonder where U2 (or The Lads as she calls them) had gone. But this is where I am today, this is the account I’ve dragged together on a seven hour journey from finishing delivering training in Bradford to my current position about fifteen minutes from Great Yarmouth where my wife, a beautiful song all of her own, is waiting to pick me up.

And yeah, I cheated but whatcha gonna do?!

Lots of Love

Colin

When I get tired and feeling blue …

This is the latest in a set of posts about setting up my new school, Trafalgar College. You can see the first two here and here! We are now open for applications which if by some strange twist of fate applies to you then you can do that here

 

This post deals with our summer activities which was the first time since the application for the school was approved that we’ve gone out there and invited people to be part of Trafalgar. Read on to see how it went …

There are all sorts of unknowns when it comes to opening a new school – at the time of writing one of those is still where we will be building it – but a key factor is of course whether we will get the numbers of students we need to make the school viable. Have we matched our vision for the new school to that of the community? Will we have a fantastic new building, have recruited amazing staff to work in it, designed a curriculum and approach to teaching and learning and yet have nobody to fill the place, be taught by the staff and learn? Put simply – if we build it, will they come?

This was in our minds when we were designing our summer activities. After the initial bid writing and the contact with prospective students, parents and wider community groups that went with it this was the first time that Trafalgar College was going to be putting itself out there and seeing what people thought. The first concrete event that we would be involved in. The first time we had dipped more than a prospective toe in the educational waters of Great Yarmouth.

The first job was to pick a range of activities that we thought would appeal while at the same time making sure that these weren’t just a way to fill some days and occupy some time for the children. We needed things that would be more interesting than X Boxes and TV shows but still gave an opportunity to learn new things and develop new skills. Surrounded by long standing attractions like the Pleasure Beach and the Sea Life Centre (as well as the plethora of arcades where I spent too much of my early years) this wasn’t going to be easy.

We aimed for a blend. Day one would feature some scientific work; exploring chemistry, biology and physics, looking at the effects of fulcrums, studying chromatography and dissecting plants. In the future this would be something we could have Trafalgar staff lead but currently we are only three in number (Principal, Vice Principal and PA support) none of whom are scientists so we enlisted a company called Zebra Science for this.

The afternoon was turned over to cooking. Now I like to cook but that’s not the same as being able to develop these skills in others or operate school kitchens so we looked to a local contact – to be precise my local – and drafted in the Eastern Daily Press Chef of the Year Mark Dixon who runs the  fantastic restaurant at the Kings Arms in Fleggburgh. Mark gave us his time for free so I’m more than happy to try and repay him in some way by suggesting that anyone who reads this and finds themselves in the Great Yarmouth area should definitely try his menu! Mark took the students through the process of making a healthy vegetable soup and then some (maybe a tad less healthy but devoured more readily) cookies for decoration. We’re yet to hear how many have taken their newly found chopping skills into the family kitchens but a number of parents were delighted to hear that they could be getting some help with Sunday lunches in the future!

Day two was over to me. Designing a new super hero and then building comic strips featuring their new characters. Our elaborate plans for doing these online were set back a little when we discovered that both of the websites we would need were blocked by the filters in the school we were basing ourselves in for the second day. As teachers we always need to have that back up plan and to innovate, sometimes on the spot, so we decided that having designed the new hero or villain and come up with a back story and ideas for their comic strip we would get the children to pose for the pictures that would make up the strip and then add captions, effects, speech bubbles and so on. You can see the results of some of these on our website and our twitter feed has pictures of the children as they designed and posed for these comic strips and posters of their super hero as well as other highlights from the three days.

As well as children, on the third day we needed one other thing – sun.  Luckily it was a glorious day. In fact I should say it is a glorious day as am currently sitting here watching our summer school participants playing cricket in the playground with just the right balance between sunshine and shade for a good day and somewhere to chill out in between sessions. In total there are six sports lined up, all taught by a superb instructor from Set Your Sights who has a great way with students and has dealt well with the demands from the boys to make each activity them versus the girls as well as making it quite clear that it’s not all about football!

So. I said at the outset that the big gamble was whether or not people would come at all. As a school we don’t exist yet and despite having links with three primary schools in the town (which proved a godsend when arranging venues to host the days) we couldn’t guarantee on these generating enough interest alone, and we are also keen to work across the whole town not just those students and families with whom we already have a relationship. We need’t have worried though. 900 signatures of support for our application should have reassured us that the numbers would be strong and in the end we attracted around three times the number of students that have attended other similar days or activities for new schools we have experience of.

We had wanted a blend of activities and what we were also hopeful for was a blend of children. That the summer activities would be an opportunity for them to develop new skills but also develop relationships and work with students aside from their usual peers and friendship groups. To be a microcosm of the community that we want to create at Trafalgar College. A place that itself will be a microcosm of the town, where there are a plethora of different socio economic, aspirational and ethnic groups, and a place where we are determined to bring everyone together so that each individual thrives and succeeds as part of a collective whole. And this was what we got.

It has been fantastic to see every student get thoroughly stuck in to what was offered; from peeling onions, to dissecting flowers, to posing for photographs and playing dodgeball and we have had some fantastic comments both from the children themselves and their parents. However, it has been seeing how they have quickly joined together in a supportive community group that has been the real plus of being involved this week and bodes well for the positive, vibrant school that Trafalgar College will become.

 

Lots of Love

Colin

10 Research Based Principles of Instruction for Teachers

Really succinct and accessible

Belmont Teach

I recently read an American Educator article from 2012 by Barak Rosenshine that set out 10 principles of instruction informed by research, with subsequent suggestions for implementing them in the classroom. It was also one of the articles cited in the “What makes great teaching? Review of the underpinning research” by Rob Coe et al and provided further elaboration on one of their six components of great teaching thought to have strong evidence of impact on student outcomes, i.e. quality of instruction.

Here’s my summary of the key messages from each of the 10 principles.

1: Begin with a short review of prior learning

Time-for-Review

Students in experimental classes where daily review was used had higher achievement scores. A 5-8 minute review of prior learning was said to strengthen connections between material learned and improve recall so that it became effortless and automatic, thus freeing up working memory.

Daily review could…

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You might not think that I care, but you don’t know what I know …

A boy shelters his sister - sorry I am unaware of origin or would reference it

A boy shelters his sister – sorry I am unaware of origin or would reference it

Before I get going if you don’t know the reference in the title then 1) What’s wrong with you? and 2) Go and check it out here

I’ve spent a while recently trying to organise a table for a charity ball in aid of children’s hospices. I managed to find enough people that were around at the right time (a bank holiday weekend and the start of half term when people are jetting off) and wanted to get measured and suited up – along with buying some new dresses for wives and girlfriends. It had been a job getting everyone together, booking table and rooms, collecting cash etc

Then I got a message saying someone couldn’t make it. They were in the RAF and had been called overseas. I was a bit miffed and immediately thought I’d have to track someone else down and then sort out getting money paid across and whether or not I could ask someone to take the place and then get them to pay full price etc etc. And then I slowed down a bit and thought about what he was being called overseas for. His posting was to India and having asked what the RAF had there he replied nothing but am organising aid being flown into Nepal. Talk about putting things into perspective. I’d only seen the picture above an hour or so earlier and my first thought was about the paltry problems my friend’s absence could cause me and not thought about the big picture.

I was disappointed as lately I’ve been looking a lot more at the big picture and rising above things that would previously have dragged me in. I’m no saint and can’t always say I keep out of things but I’ve got better recently. I’ve had fake accounts set up that used my picture and had gone through my wife’s account to find pictures and retweet them as well as including paedophile jokes. Charming I’m sure you’d agree and in the past it would have bothered me and got me wound up along with the various jibes and sarcastic comments. In the past I would have thought for a while about how to be sardonic in response and probably got embroiled in a particularly unhelpful and unhealthy exchange. I suppose it all made me think of the Simpson’s episode where Homer suggests that Bart lets, “the baby have its bottle.” So now the most I’ll offer in terms of a response is silence or a joke response as it’s about all things of this nature deserve – although I did think the paedophile jokes and trolling my wife’s account was a bit much (weird, offensive, disgusting perhaps?) so reported that one and twitter shut it down.

The system works - until another anonymous one is set up ... yawn ...

The system works – until another anonymous one is set up … yawn …

So what has given me this ability to seek calm and retreat into a zen like state? Well I’ve already reflected on the I’m Ok You’re Ok philosophy that encourages me to look for good in people and be able to take less to heart (I’ve also been quite taken with the notion of “people don’t hate you, they just hate themselves at you,” but that could just be denial) but it’s a couple of bigger things that have given me a sense of perspective and a sense of something bigger than twitter rows or whether Nicky Morgan is the same as Michael Gove, or whether knowledge or skills is the most important. I have an opinion on these and other things. Many, many other things, but they aren’t the things that define my existence.

One of them is something I’ll keep to myself for a while as it’s not my place to share – suffice it to say when you’ve laid on the floor of a casualty department with someone desperately close and important to you screaming and shouting after they’ve tried to take their own life while suffering from a severe episode of mental illness you don’t get worked up on whether Hirsch is a Democrat or a Republican. Cradling someone who is absolutely terrified while they don’t know where they are, who you are – or for that matter who they are – does help you see what’s worth getting worked up about.

The other is one that has only been a factor in my life recently. I suppose in some ways episodes like the one above – and yes it wasn’t an isolated case – had made me feel I was kind of impervious to most things but finding out my dad had cancer was still hard to hear and when I think about it it’s still coming through to me in waves and every so often the full implications of it smack me pretty hard in the face.

He got the diagnosis the day I was leaving my last job and typically for my dad didn’t want to tell me then as I was going out for a meal and it might spoil the day so it was a few days later that my mum rang me to let me know. She wasn’t going to tell me on the phone but I knew there was something there so I pressed and she did. He’d been ill for a while and had lost a lot of weight and was tired almost all the time but we’d put it down to a number of things; he was diagnosed with pre-diabetes and had to make massive changes to his diet, he’d had changes at work that were massively stressful, and his useless son had him doing all sort of repairs and renovations to his house. Still my mum knew there was something worth chasing (nurse’s intuition that didn’t help when I ACCIDENTALLY broke my brother’s ankle two and a half decades ago) so pressed for extra blood tests and eventually a number of scans.

They identified secondary cancer in his liver but weren’t sure of the primary so needed extra meetings and consultations. Extras that have now been going on for almost nine weeks and still with little sense of a next step. It’s hard waiting and the unknown is more terrifying than the first diagnosis as we still don’t know what it is we are dealing with and as such can’t take even the first steps. And I’m on the outside of it. I can’t even begin to think what it’s like for dad.

And that’s where we are. Still in the unknown. Waiting for a drip, drip of information from various doctors, some informed, some less so, some appearing to have no sense of empathy and others absolutely fantastic but ultimately pretty powerless. I’m likely to write more on this as I get a sense of what it’s about and I’ll apologise in advance if it’s a bit self indulgent but it’s a way of thinking things through.

So yeah, there are things that wind me up and no, I’m not immune to being abused (“do I not bleed?”) but I’m also aware of more things in heaven and on earth Horatio.

Lots of Love

Colin

You know what happened to Nelson …

Sorry but I'm a child of a certain era ...

Sorry but I’m a child of a certain era …

So dear reader, blog number two on the journey to the opening of Trafalgar College. Since the last one we’ve had the election – you know the one Martin Freeman told us about in a manner most five year olds would find offensive – and now purdah is done and dusted we can get properly get things going with the new school. I have been saying full steam ahead but needed a better phrase so went to my dad for advice and he suggested setting full sail so that’s what I’m going with.

Planning a school when you don’t know where it is going to be or what it will look like sounds like a strange concept but as Jim Bob says, “the school is not the buildings, it’s the children.” Admittedly we don’t know them yet but the principle is there and one that I’ve been working towards.

I don’t want to sound like I’m basically sitting around all day pontificating as there are lots of other aspects to my role at the moment involving supporting schools and teachers and writing curriculum models starting at year 1 and working through along with preparing and delivering leadership training (see, I am doing stuff) but there is also time to really consider a wide range of ideas and philosophies as we formulate the right one for Trafalgar.

I think that educational debate has recently become too polarised and, as I mentioned on my personal blog when I introduced the first Trafalgar piece, I think this is unhelpful. I always try to read around as much as I can and although I can have the same reactions as others to things on first sight or experience I think it’s important to reflect more and look for a bigger picture and a wider sense of what’s going on. I don’t mean that we need to embrace every single thing and know that there will be some ideas or approaches that won’t be part of the final picture but to give an ear to people or thoughts in order to see what things can be taken away is important.

This was particularly in my mind when I visited Michaela last week to speak to Joe Kirby and see the curriculum and the lessons there. The approach to teaching that I’d been told Michaela used prior to my visit was one that seemed to be quite removed from my own but I went with a genuine interest and an open mind. People often talk about effect sizes and what ‘works’ or doesn’t but I’m yet to be convinced that there is a way to teach that covers everything and is bullet proof. Tait Coles who wrote the brilliant PuNk Learning has written about the difference between the style and the code, making analogies between teaching and football, and suggesting that we get too hung up on looking for the right way to teach and lose sight of the reasons why we do so. Equally, while people might look at me as a TEEP trainer and suggest that it advocates a specific way of teaching (you often hear of people saying they or their lessons have been ‘TEEPed’) I have always seen it as way to bring together a range of approaches and provide a framework for discussing and sharing these underpinned by some pretty universal stuff.

So here I was, someone who delivers a course that has collaborative learning as one of its ideas visiting a school where I was told on arrival that there is no group work or talking and that pupils are told what they need to know, tested on it and if they don’t know they learn it again. I know that some people have picked up on this or other things they’ve heard about Michaela and really ran with them, especially after David Didau’s blog but as you’d expect, and I’d hope we’d all realise, things are never quite that simple.

We were delayed on the train so unfortunately we only got to the school for the end of Family Lunch but managed to catch the idea. The pupils were in tables of five or six and took turns to serve each other food, cleared the tables and engaged in discussions around a topic of the day. As we were there on election day the topic was pretty much unavoidable and I managed to join a table at the end where I introduced the idea of tactical voting to the conversation. After everything had been cleared away the pupils and staff had an opportunity to give each other ‘Appreciations’ that consisted of thanking someone for something they had done or recognising a kind act and clapping twice in recognition. Now this is where I can see hackles being raised in response to terminology or prescribed actions. I have to say it was unusual to me, but look deeper than this and see what was happening. Each day these children sit around a table together with an adult, share out tasks and responsibilities and help each other and the community out and then show their gratitude towards each other for acts of kindness. Remember the style and the code.

And then we were into lessons. And do you know what? The kids sat in rows, they were polite, they were quiet when it was asked for, they were tested regularly to check their understanding and all the other things we can decide to look at and dismiss because it must lead to x or y and can’t help them to be balanced individuals. But that’s just looking at the surface and possibly wilfully no deeper. What I saw were classes where students were completely engrossed in their learning because they wanted to be and because they wanted to do well. And they were doing incredibly well at incredibly high levels. In a French lesson for example the pupils weren’t just able to answer questions in the target language and demonstrate a fantastic vocabulary and ability to apply the language learnt they could explain exactly why the words needed an extra vowel or dropped a consonant in French. They had a real grasp of the grammatical rules and could explain them – and help each other out when someone went astray – in the target language. Rote learning with no real understanding? Not here.

English next, and again pupils were engaged, interested and enjoying the lesson. The focus was on Julius Caesar and the class were looking at a piece of extended writing and discussing (yes, discussing – while Joe Kirby who was teaching the class feels that group work can lead to too much freeloading he is a massive advocate of the benefits of paired discussion and sharing ideas in a class) the strengths and weaknesses of it as well as answering questions of the play overall and which characters said what and what this told us about them. As an English teacher I was interested in whether or not the students explored their own interpretations. The notion of a knowledge based approach seemed to me to suggest that they would be learning a set way of doing it with Core Knowledge equating to learning one way at the expense of others – I didn’t say I didn’t have prejudices just that I try to keep them in check! Having seen a reference to Tyger Tyger in their books I asked the two girls showing us round what the poem was about and what it told us about Blake’s view of creation and mankind. Not only were the responses impressive in terms of showing understanding of a poem they had studied some time ago (and yes, I picked one from a while back to see if there was residue of thought) but the two of them had a variation in their interpretations that showed a sense of critical autonomy developing and were able to justify their thoughts based on the text.

I also want to stress how comfortable, balanced and happy the students appeared. Again in responses to David’s post there has been comments that these children can’t be happy if they are working hard and challenged and almost as if the focus on learning means that they will lose the chance to enjoy themselves and be children and I have to say that this was certainly not the case in the lessons we saw during our visit or the children we spoke to. The French, English and Art lessons we went into were characterised by happy (which to some seems incompatible with learning), focused and hard working (which on the other side of the fence for some reason must mean they are stressed and unhappy) students who were fully committed and engaged (ah, need another side of the fence for those who baulk at the word engagement as if you engage students at the expense of them learning).

No excuses has been raised a fair bit as well and I can see how, if we equate no excuses with not being allowed to make mistakes, this could be seen as fairly oppressive, stress inducing and scary. To me though, and the impression given by the pupils, no excuses means to keep going, to redefine failure as a learning experience to build on and dare I say it was a way to develop resilience. You know one of those ‘soft’ skills that apparently have no place in schools and yet contribute a fair bit to developing what we might call ‘character!’ Flippancy aside if we can build classrooms where pupils don’t laugh at other’s mistakes and as a result feel comfortable to put ideas and answers forward – as it was expressed to me by the children – I’d be happy.

So what had we learned (Jerry!)? Well it was obvious that there was a very extensive knowledge base to the curriculum. Looking at the books the girls were working from you could see how much material they had covered and this was also evident in the French lesson where they had such an in depth knowledge of the grammatical rules. What was evident though was that this knowledge base was a starting point not a destination and that it didn’t restrict or limit the pupils but gave them a firm and impressive foundation to explore and question from.

In a wider sense (conscious that I’m verging into Martin Freeman patronising land here) the main thing going forward is that we need to be careful of how our preconceptions frame our explorations. We need to be aware of our own need for confirmation bias and be able to put it to one side, look beyond the obvious, no matter how readily it confirms what we expected – or hoped – to find and see what is really happening. I don’t intend for Trafalgar to be a recreation of Michaela any more than I want it to be Norwich School on the beach. I also think that Joe could have made more of Paul Ginnis’ work than he did when writing about it in fairly dismissive tones as being all about style and lacking content (it allows for content and knowledge to develop through engagement with high levels of challenge and it’s misuse rather than inherent problems in the thinking that are the issue in my opinion – Paul’s response was that he was flattered it was still being read) but I’m confident that with the wide range of ideas out there we can find something valuable in a wide range of them as we look to develop the curriculum and ethos of Trafalgar College. It’s not, as a friend expressed to me this week, about choosing between E.D. Hirsch and Ken Robinson but finding which bits of both can contribute to creating an education for our pupils that will be more than the sum of all the various edu-parts.

Lots of Love

Colin

Shouting to be heard, above the sound of ideologies clashing…

So… I was asked to write a blog for the New Schools Network about setting up Trafalgar College and wrote what follows. It was meant as a personal reflection on how I ended up in the position to do so and, aside from my tendency to have overlong sentences, I thought it did a decent job of that. It was put up on the trust’s website and then someone told me that it had received a reply on someone else’s blog who took comments in it as throwing punches and there were also comments that I’d been coerced in some way to write it. I can assure you that it was off my own back and any punches were in the mirror as I looked back on what I considered to be an unhelpful stance I’d taken and am glad to have moved on from. As I have said before on ‘debates’ about progressives and traditionalists, skills vs knowledge, etc I find polarisation and generalisation to be a barrier to moving on and think we need real communication which is about contributing a range of ideas and views to a more powerful and well developed way forward rather then just shouting till one voice is the loudest.

Anyway here it is and volume two will be along soon for your delight!

I’m not even sure if I was of school age when my mum, a determined Londoner dragged my poor old dad into the Norwich School tent at the Norfolk Show. Dad, a bricklayer from the gorgeous but pretty isolated village of Winterton on Sea told me recently he had no idea what she was up to. He knew it was best just to go along with her as having a headstrong Irish temperament (something I have to confess I have a little bit of myself) she wasn’t one for backing down.

Mum – and dad without knowing it yet – had decided that if I was going to get on in life I’d need the highest quality education. To be fair, she already gave me a pretty good start before I even set foot in a school by reading to me and encouraging me to get to grips with the letters, words and stories that would eventually lead me to a degree in English and to teach the subject. But now it was time for me to get a formal education that would mean I had an open door to success.

I had to work hard at that school. Even though I was on a scholarship mum and dad still had to give up a lot and I remember the night shifts at Accident and Emergency in Gorleston, near Great Yarmouth that mum did, putting up with all manner of things just to make sure that I, and later, my younger brother could access a high quality education. That scholarship wasn’t easy to come by and neither was maintaining it but I thrived in the focused, dedicated community supported by excellent teachers and equally committed and hard working peers.

Throughout my career I’ve always wanted to take what I had at Norwich School and give it to others. Not necessarily the subjects, or the model, or the games lessons in freezing cold rugby pitches (although maybe this is what’s meant by character education…) but the aspiration and self- confidence along with the qualifications and the experiences that make school the holistic, supportive and developing experience that it should be – maybe I’m back on those playing fields again!

I’m also someone committed to my local area. My tutor at Norwich, a wonderful man called Craig Hooper, once told me that when he was growing up he drew a circle of fifty miles around his home and pledged that his university would have to be well outside of this radius. I’ve never felt that need to escape, to leave almost for the sake of it and while I love exploring, seeing places and meeting people I’ve been lucky to have opportunities nearby. You’ll have gathered by now I was pretty blessed by the school I was fortunate enough to go to, and when it came to my degree where better to read English than the UEA where writers I’d devoured like Ian McEwan and Kazuo Ishiguro had studied and written?

And so it was with my teaching career. While I’ve worked across the country delivering TEEP and NPQML/SL as well as having the great opportunities and experiences that the FastTrack programme offered up in my earlier years, until recently I’ve worked in the same school where I was an NQT. In the time I spent there I’d gone through just about every role on the way to the leadership team and while I had drifted into the wilds of Suffolk from Norfolk I was always pleased that I was working in what was (near enough) my community and also working with students that hadn’t always had the greatest opportunities so could really use an education that opened up things to them and broadened horizons. I’ve been reading Biesta lately so am conscious of the view of education as emancipation that can look like some sort of master going in to release these young people by bestowing education upon them but I’ve never viewed what we do as a power based relationship. We definitely do give something to our students as we work with them but the greatest part of that for me is working to see what they have within them already and how we can help to develop that to give them a sense of their equal position and rights in a challenging society.

And so to where I am now. My local roots (and maybe that Irish ancestry I mentioned earlier) meant I was a little miffed to hear how education in Norfolk and other coastal areas needed to be sorted out and how various organisations were going to flood in and save us. Hang on I thought, what about those of us working here already? Can’t we be involved in this?

And it turns out we can.

Rather than sitting on the sidelines shouting and moaning (although maybe I did a bit of that in the early days) I decided to go and speak to one of the organisations working in the area and get a sense of what they were about based on more than the lazy twitter comments and newspaper articles. “Let’s go and see what these people are about,” I thought. So I arranged a meeting with the CEO of The Inspiration Trust, Dame Rachel de Souza to get a sense of the work that the trust were doing and who they really were.

This was the first of a few meetings and exchanges with Dame Rachel and others from the trust including Ian Burchett – now my boss – that included looking at some of the schools and at one point inviting Inspiration in as one of a number of trusts that we met at my previous school while we were seeing what sponsors were out there. In all of those meetings, visits and twitter exchanges what was evident was that here were people who were absolutely committed to doing the very best for the young people of the county (and even creeping into North Lowestoft with one school) and had a fantastic range of skills and experiences all of which were channelled into delivering an excellent education and start in life for all of the children in their care – children from my home county and, in the case of three of the primaries, my home town.

And that’s where my real excitement and eventual involvement stemmed from. In early conversations with Ian he’d said that he was writing a bid for a free school to be based in Great Yarmouth. Trafalgar College would be a secondary free school with a STEM focus and a commitment to ensuring that the young people of Great Yarmouth were prepared with the qualifications, skills and attributes that would mean they could secure some of the high paid jobs that companies in the town were currently looking elsewhere to recruit. This was a massively exciting message for me and I wanted in.

It took a while. Eight or nine months passed between those initial conversations and a post arising at the trust to work as Executive Vice Principal working across schools and then, all being well, forming part of the Trafalgar team if the bid was approved. The interview was a tough one and Ian and some of the other Principals and leaders from the Great Yarmouth Federation really put me through my paces; financial interviews, PESTLE analysis, on the spot presentations to people in role as parents at an open evening, and in depth leadership discussions. The last featured a question on resilience which, coming from a school that had recently dropped below floor and then been put into Special Measures by an Ofsted team inspecting a school with a large percentage of staff on strike for the duration of their visit, I had plenty to talk about.

So I left the school that had seen me arrive as a trainee, given me my first teaching position and then move from head of subject, to head of faculty and where I’d been part of a brilliantly supportive and collaborative leadership team to move to a job where not only did I not know who was who, what systems and structures to expect I didn’t even have anywhere to put all of the stuff I cleared out of my old office. A vision for a new school is an exciting thing but you can’t put your books on the shelves of a vision or put your certificates and well loved drawings from previous students on the walls.

But what a vision it is. And it continues to grow. I’ve been in post now for about two and a half weeks and boy have I made the right decision. If you haven’t seen our CEO at work then you’re missing out. She has such commitment and passion for what she does and for making sure that there’s not a single person in that room who doesn’t share it and push on and on to get the very best for the students in our schools and their communities. And that commitment is shared by each and every person that I’ve met. I consider myself genuinely fortunate to work alongside Ian who currently has a dual role as Executive Principal for Great Yarmouth and Commercial Director for the trust. We have already had fantastic discussions about what we are going to do with our school and the work we are going to do with the parents, students and wider town; we share an interest in developing pedagogy and the teachers and leaders in the group of school we work with; and I’ve also begun to get a sense of the workings of a multi academy trust and the ways in which it facilitates a collaborative approach to taking education forward which has sadly been lacking in some areas lately.

So that’s where we are and where I am. Like I say I am two weeks into the role and have so far presented to the CEOs of other trusts, met with people from the EFA and provided some leadership cover for a primary school to free up their leaders for some intervention work with year 6 hosted at a fellow federation school. Add into that meetings with The Regional Schools Commissioner and Roy Blatchford, planned trips to Michaela to look at curriculum and a visit to some place called ‘The Big Apple’ to see how things work stateside and I’m sure you’d agree it’s a time of great opportunities coupled with hard work. But all with the mindset of providing the very best.

All I need now is for this election to get itself sorted so we can end purdah and get on with finding a site and building Great Yarmouth a fantastic new school.

Lots of Love

Colin