• Ruth Ashbee

The more pointable-at things aren’t always the best things

First can I apologise for the inelegance of the title of this post. There wasn’t a more elegant way to say what I wanted to say.

And that’s what life is like isn’t it? Sometimes there is a mismatch between what we’d like and the way things are.

Regarding actions in a school, what we’d really like is actions that match each thing we’re supposed to achieve. Bullet point to bullet point. Meet the needs of children with SEND – oh we do overlays. Close the gap for pupil premium – yeah we mark their books first. Staff wellbeing? Namaste, and welcome to our yoga class. We like these things because we can say we’re going to do them, we can do them, and then we can tick off our “action” and congratulate ourselves on our achievements. We can present it for our appraisal, and we can have it in our folder ready to show Ofsted when they ask about SEND, pupil premium, or wellbeing. We can point to the action and say “this is what we do.”

The issue here is that often the things that have the most impact are much less easy to point at. They are usually bigger and less clearly defined. So one of the best things you can do for children with SEND is to get really, really good behaviour in every lesson. But we don’t really think that looks good on an action plan because we’ve already said that in the behaviour section, it’s a bit vague isn’t it, how can we measure it precisely, we won’t know whether to put green plus, green equals or green minus? Another thing that’s great for children with SEND is a carefully planned and sequenced curriculum – but again this is a bit big, it kind of covers the whole school not just SEND, and it’s a bit fuzzy, it’s hard to measure precisely, and we’ve already got a section on curriculum, so we can’t put it again. Great teaching is the same: same genuine benefits, same perceived problems in how it looks as a solution.

Behaviour, curriculum, teaching. You know what else these are great for? Closing the gap for pupil premium. Oh, and teacher wellbeing. We’d like narrowly-defined, easily measured activities to be the best things to address these areas, because that would be convenient for accountability both within our schools and when we are inspected. But the world doesn’t just exist to fulfil our accountability/convenience desires. The world is an independent, complex, roiling, seething mass of variables and factors and people and things and their interactions – and systems like this rarely respond to isolated interventions. And when we nominate these isolated interventions, we distract from the important work of the school. Behaviour, curriculum and teaching are big, and fuzzy, precisely because they are system-level responses- and it is this quality that means they can succeed where isolated strategies can not.

So let’s put down our pointer. If we get these three things right then we’ll be doing a great job, and we’ll be able to see clearly the small number of instances where individual adaptations will be beneficial. Let’s have courage to answer questions on “how are you addressing…?” with big, complex, system -level answers: behaviour, curriculum, teaching. These aren’t a cop-out: they’re everything.

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