Sunday, 28 June 2015

A new lexicon of love: climbing the mountain of excellence

We have been the lucky recipient of many inspections in my time at Badock’s.  Our last school inspection proclaimed that we were providing a good standard of education, and we were all delighted.  Naturally, we all said “outstanding next time”, because that’s what you do.  But I have been wondering for some time, are we actually on the right bus?

I had the pleasure of listening to Roy Blatchford a few months ago.  A noted education figure, I listened with great interest as he spoke about the specifics of certain vocabulary.  Frequent flyers of this drivel will know that this is a subject close to my heart.  He spoke about schools striving not for good or outstanding (with OfSTED “O”s), but striving for excellence.  More precisely, he spoke about striving for excellence as standard.  He then went on to illustrate this in many different ways.  I don’t mind confessing, I came away from that talk knowing seeds had been planted somewhere overgrown and smelly in the darker recesses of my twisted and devious mind.

I was reminded of many car adverts from the 80s and 90s, which often boasted of certain things that were “excellent as standard”.  I never used to consider how electronic windows would be excellent as standard, but I suppose you would miss them if they weren’t.  My dad only ever had company cars – generally Cortinas or astras which have hardly every troubled the dictionary definition of excellence - and we all thought our ship had come in when he brought a Granada with electric seat warmers.  It’s quite a strange feeling coming home from university for the first time thinking “Funny how dad waited until I left home to buy a new car” and “My bum’s lovely and warm”.  You probably don’t miss excellence until you’ve had something less than that standard, really.

This seed germinated for a few weeks and started to grow into something I didn’t quite recognise.  I tried to crystallise it with some of my reading over half term, including David Taylor and Andy Cope amongst the usual fiction escapism, yet still the shape would not arrive.  I normally come back from the Whitsun break with a SIP pretty much written down.  This year, I simply didn’t.

In sitting / lying down in various places to try and write the next SIP, I couldn’t get the working right, couldn’t find the phrases that would help drive improvement forward.  I struggled, for the first time in a few years, if I’m honest.  I was repeatedly rebuffed by this sense that in getting ready to climb the next mountain, surely you have to be looking at the right one?

Then I read comments from Sir Michael Wilshaw’s speech about the new OfSTED framework.  In amongst all the plans for the way OfSTED will work from here on in, which surely the profession and its leadership can only applaud, he made the point that schools should be striving to be the best they can be for their communities, not the best they can be for inspectors.  Finally, the shadows lifted, edges began to form, the mist evaporated, and I finally saw what had been planted all those weeks ago.

It dawned on me that in striving for the holy grail of an OfSTED outstanding, we were missing the point.  Our attentions became focussed on the badge, and not on the school upon which we would one day pin it.  All along, I felt like I’d been looking at a lovely mountain, but not the one for us.
Scrabbling around for my notes from the Blatchford lecture, I was struck once again by the notion of excellence as standard, and how it could be applied to schools and to learning.  How excellent teaching, every day, should be what we’re striving for, not just teaching that fulfils generic boxes – but actually breaks the boundaries of our own boxes as a matter of course.  How excellent curriculum, underpinned by excellent assessment, could be the cornerstone of the foundations of something really exciting.

One sunny evening, the retractable pencils for which I am famed / mocked went into overdrive, and I wrote about 75% of the mainframe of the next SIP, without once using the word outstanding.  Instead, I was driven on by quotes from Aristotle, from Michelangelo, from some of our greatest educational commentators, Messrs Robinson, Smith and Blatchford included, and from my beloved music.

Is it ready? No.  Is it complete? No, not quite. Is it in keeping with previous SIPs? Not at all.  In it, we make it clear that excellence is our goal, for the quality of teaching, and for the excellent quality of experience we want to bring to all stakeholders.  It talks about ensuring excellence in the delivery of phonics and grammar teaching, which we know is an issue for our children – because excellence for them will bring about excellence by them, if that truly is the standard.   It talks about the excellence we want to bring about for our most vulnerable groups by appointing champions for them who must ensure their best interests are upheld in every sense.  It talks about how various elements of our community can work together for best benefit, and how to utilise the very best aspects of individual tuition for every child.  We want to ensure we can offer excellence for everyone who comes through the door, whatever they may need and whatever challenges they present.

In the words of our chair of Governors when recently questioned, “we want to be excellent for all of our children all of the time, not just outstanding for a few”.

And do you know what? It’s quite a liberating point of view.  I have of course used the new OfSTED documents in order to support our self-assessment, but it has felt a far more fruitful exercise, far more beneficial.   I have used the new framework and its phraseology to help prepare for our core visit this week, and it has been a really good tool in clarifying our thinking towards it, but by no means our master.

It feels very refreshing to be on the right bus heading for the right mountain. It fits.  It’s more comfortable.  It’s an excellent feeling.  It will take a shift in mind-set for some, maybe some of our governors and maybe for some of the community, but I feel it is the right thing to do.

Put it into a different context: we did some recruitment last week, and we never once used the term outstanding.  Some of the candidates did, yet, in reality, they were anything but.  Instead, I sat there, trying to listen (which all my fellow panelists know is not one of my strengths) and thought to myself could I make this candidate excellent? Could they make an excellent contribution to our school, and can they maintain that level?  One candidate got the job with a single answer, and it was all around being brilliant, all the time.  Sounds different, and a little more exciting, doesn’t it.  It also, if I’m honest, rang somewhat more true than “I aim to be outstanding”.

It’s an exciting place to be in, and I’m looking forward to the journey from here.

Whilst I build up the courage to tell my knees and my back that we’re all going on camp this year, that is all.