Friday, 17 July 2015

Not excellence, as least, not yet

Around about a year ago, I settled to down to write a blog all about the world’s biggest horse.  (  No, it wasn’t really about a big horse, but about how such things are measured, at a time when measures and indicators are at their most important.  I received a lot of comment on that blog, and a lot of people telling me to keep my chin up. If at any point in this or any other blog I sound the tiniest bit whingy, please slap me, and remember one thing: I thoroughly enjoy my job, and feel lucky to do it. 

What I really felt last year was gutted-by-association for everyone else: I felt that we had been collectively let down by an externally imposed system that would not notice or appropriately reflect the true quality of our work.  So, last summer, I determined that we would not be in this position again; we’d keep a far firmer grip on all of those “measurables” and do something about it if we didn’t like it.  After all, having felt that fear, that sickening feeling of self-doubt, you can either run and hide or roll your sleeves up. 

And there’s no denying it – we’ve been having a decent little year.  Our attendance has consistently been going in the right direction, behaviour has been at its best (and, at its very extremes, some of its most challenging) and the figures have been strong, not spectacular, but strong. 

The first figures started rolling in – EYFS has improved from 21% on track to 54%.  Not bad eh?  I started to feel a little … content. 

Year 1 phonics came in: consistently around 40%, we notched up a respectable 64%.  This was feeling … okay.  Key stage 1 results followed.  Minor, fractional improvements on last year, but starting from a much lower starting point, so that they had improved their percentage on track by over 3 times.  Okay.  This is okay.  Even better than that, both EYFS and key stage 1 have been moderated so we know it’s all accurate. 

Key stage 2 teacher assessment (and, yes, once again, externally validated) puts us up 10% in reading and maths, and 5% in writing, also taking us to our highest writing score ever.  I began the writing of a new school improvement plan based on the notion of excellence.

In amongst all this came our attendance figure: the first time we have ever troubled 94% - get in! As things stand, we have 14 children with 100% attendance for the year.  Equally pleasing is that we have now gone over a calendar year without an exclusion. 

Then came the SATs results.  Reading was up.  Not massive, but up.  Writing of course we already knew. 

Then came maths.  Oh dear.  Oh dear oh dear.  Of course, as a result, our combined figure also comes tumbling down, and because of one result our house of cards not only looks shaky, but looks to be built on three cards that are soaking wet and full of holes.

-          -  Insert your own exclamation here –

It would be easy for me to sit here and bemoan our “luck” or whatever force may be behind these.  It would be more simplistic to blame external factors and be blasé.  But what would that actually teach our children? And what would it achieve for us?

If we are truly aspiring to be excellent next year, and we all want our school to be excellent, then surely we have to be open and honest about anything which is not excellent.  Aspiring for excellence demands a certain standard, and anything that falls short of that standard is not good enough.  If everything else is going in the right direction but one result still lets us down, is that excellent? 

If we want it, if we want this wonderful excellence, and we believe in what it stands for, then we need to roll up our sleeves that little further and be honest about our standards, but which I mean the standards we set for ourselves.  

If we’re truly looking for measurable, take a look at these.  I like a little counter-intuitivism, as you all know, and therefore I would offer up a set of measures, statistics and standards each of which possess the answer zero, nothing, nought, nada.

How many exclusions have we carried out this year?

How many external reports have we had that question the quality of our provision?

How many grades did we get wrong in moderation? Across all three key stages?

How many grades of inadequate have we received from any visits?

Once you’ve started from this metaphorical ground zero, then look at some of the statistics I’ve listed above.  The signs are looking okay.  Not brilliant, because we haven’t yet reached our own standards, and to call that excellent would be against the nature of what we are trying to achieve.

Because here’s the deal: if you are truly to succeed, somewhere along the way we need to fail.  Somewhere on the journey you need to feel that sickness in the pit of your stomach, that cold sweat, and you need to feel them several times.  Otherwise you don’t know exactly how much success means.

As we head into next year, some might think that we are heading ourselves into mission impossible.  We need, in amongst all the hyperbole coming from the department, to ensure we hit the highest standards ever next year or decisions may be made on our behalf.  We have to do more than our very best.  In short, we need to attain, maintain and sustain excellence, in every sense and on every front, in every classroom and in every book.

Some might think this is too much.  Some might think it’s not doable.  But me? I’ve never been more up for it.  If my sleeves were rolled any higher they’d disappear into my waistcoat.  And although I owe my family A LOT of family time, a lot of reading stories (I've promised to read Ruben the Hobbit, and would like to get through To Kill A Mockingbird), a lot of water fights, a lot of cooking and barbecuing, I honestly cannot wait to get this next chapter started.

To my stunning colleagues, I wish you all a wonderful summer.  I wish you all lengthy days and dusky nights.  I wish you all a million beach BBQs and a million and one lie-ins.  Read some wonderful books and listen to some favourite music, and wherever you go, take with you may enormous thanks and gratitude.  We are truly building something special here.

To our wonderful children, have a brilliant, sun kissed summer full of playful days and dreamy nights.  We couldn’t build anything this special without you.

And to anyone else who has participated and contributed along the way, thank you so much; we may not mention you by name but you know you are appreciated.

From me, from the desk in the corridor, with sleeves well and truly rolled up, that for another year is indeed all.  

Thursday, 9 July 2015

How many smores is officially too many? Really? Oh, okay then ....

We have reached the end of day four.  No casualties, no major issues, almost no energy and lots of sun toasted cheeks.  Another packed day today culminating in the joy that is the disco, and another million successes to report.  We are sat here basking in the glow of the staff win in the disco fancy dress tournament (we were, in fairness, the only entrants) and reflecting on the week at large.

The thing is, we are struggling.  Not struggling to think of anything good; far from it.  We have the reverse feeling - how can we whittle it down to a blog that will be short enough to read this side of our return?  We are sat here sharing stories and tales of courage, resilience, bravery, laughter, friendship, and, if we are honest, not a little fear and frustration.

I have often spoken of camp as weaving some magic.  Although my knees (and I am not using this as an excuse: my right knee and hip have been on fire since yesterday) and my back are threatening me with a Friday night of unrivaled pain, I have been reminded on a hundred tiny occasions of the privilege and joy it is to weave away.  As I have watched children almost stand on a surfboard, watched them shoot a rifle, string an archery bow, light a fire, climb a tower, make a new and unexpected friend, I have taken that quiet moment of pride in the fact that I might have just had something to do with it, if only tangentially, for a second, a long time ago.

What follows are the staff-agreed highlights.  We could report on a thousand, ranging from overcoming massive fears to simply being unbelievably pleasant, but we have tried to be precise in order to ensure we record a tangible outcome for every child to hold onto on a cold wet winter in November.  So, as Dermot would say to a contestant just kicked out of X factor, let's have a look at your best bits.

Billy Joe - champion archer

Jacob T - top of the climbing wall all on his own

Matta - Jumping off the bridge into the river (sorry about the shoe Mum)

Taya - incredible rifle skills

Cheyanne - a brand new, world first climbing technique

Natasha - Body boarding and (almost) surfing

Logan - The chug meister (Mum, I'll explain when I see you)

Lee - Great team player in the pipe building game

Sinead - Basically, doing everything with a smile

Jack F - too many to mention

Nathan - Our born leader, in every sense

Bethany - Not giving up when it was too tough

Connor - No grumbles whatsoever, even when we've walked miles

Harry - Pushing himself up the climbing wall

Jessica - We cannot narrow it down; she had smiled and done everything

Kiera - a great team player on the raft

Bailey S - a champion rower on the raft

Sean - overcoming his fears on the climbing wall

Owen - carrying on with water sports even when utterly freezing

Taneysha - Overcoming her fears to be simply awesome

Ryan - getting into the spirit of camp with lots of interesting questions

Brooklyn - not giving up even when things were tough, e.g., pulling that archery bow back

William - surf skills

Natalia - team work on the spider's web

Taylor - embracing the watersports

Amy - air rifle

Lainey May - Conquering fears on a number of activities

Katie F - Massive team player

Caydon - Assault course

Jack D - His positive attitude to all tasks

Brandon - Double bulls-eye in rifles

Mason - Another of our wonderful leaders - a future surfer dude

Cameron - Body boarding legend

Kane - Overcoming hatred of water to body board - and stay for the late session

Abdi - Jumping off a bridge despite being freezing

Leah - Loving it (in her own words)

Baileigh - Jumping of the bridge - twice!

Candice - Amazing rifle / archery work

Katie - Climbing wall (and amazing integrity... and, we discovered, modesty)

Riley - Helping everyone over the assault course

Magic is magic, and always will be.  Well done everyone, and thank you.

To the amazing staff team, thank you all so much.  The way you've thrown yourself into everything, and the standard and model you've set for the kids has made it all so much easier and more enjoyable.  Have a great weekend.  And the costumes, if somewhat snug, were awesome.

So, from the magic weaving place, the colors of which will always be the most wonderful green and blue I see anywhere on the planet other than my beloved Cornwall, that is a sun toasted, tired but happy all.

And for me at camp?  That is ... something for me to think about once my knees have started talking to me again.

That, for now, is truly all.

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Is that a hole in your wet suit or ....?

Day three of camp is often pivotal, for more reasons than it is the middle of the week.  Day three sees those who have grown in stature grow even further, and those yet to relax either feel the new found freedom or shrink back to the cave of safety, almost certain not to venture out into camp's sunlight at all.

You really need to take on everything on day three, or the week is lost.  I had forewarned the gang last night how the day would work, and that their first activity was not watersports, as they previously suspected, but the art, pain and tribulation of getting in to a wetsuit.  However, some of the gang decided that they would start early.  Kiera and Bayleigh wandered up the breakfast hall early to help set up.  Why? Because they felt like being nice, apparently.  Legendary.

Wetsuit donning went with its usual graceless hilarity.  Mr Osborn and myself sprayed several boys into their suits with the world renowned "grab them by the hips and shake them up and down" approach.    Even Billy-Joe chuckled with audible delight.

Watersports itself is always one of my personal highlights anyway, and our new company had us all set up within minutes.  We filled Exmouth sea coast with so many surfers and body boarders that we must've looked like we were invading.  At one point, I got so excited I flung my bodyboard up in the air.  Soz about that everyone, especially the person whose head it landed on.

Why was I so excited?  Because the first of our "look at me, I'm actually stood up surfing" legends was up on his board.  William was closely followed by Katie F, Bayleigh, Taya and Mason.  So many others got within a whisker, and despite the freezing temperatures, everyone was getting literally stuck in.

Then came the legends at the other end of the scale.  I knew Kane wouldn't fancy watersports too much, but like the trojan he is, he got himself up to his knees and bodyboarding with the rest of them.  Two smiling blond faces kept appearing next to me, and I realized Lainey May and Natalia were in with the rest of the hardcore surfers.  And, despite being clearly frozen, Cheyanne and Ryan stayed on for the extra session.

In fact, when we sat down as a staff tonight and talked about who should go in the blog, we almost got to the stage of "who shouldn't we mention today?".  Therefore, despite a few kamikaze sausages in the beach bbq, and tiredness taking a hold for one or two, day three has to be seen as a success.

That would normally be all, but I wanted to take one moment to mention a couple of legends not just because they surfed or scaled a wall or something big and showy.  Legends are often legends because they just make the world a little nicer.  One of our boys went to bed early, and the others in his tent seemed lost as to whether or not to go in.  Mason came along and scooped them up and said (exact words)  "You're all more than welcome in our tent lads!".  Couldn't've done it better myself.

Furthermore, you see a lot of bravery on camp, but you don't often see it coupled with nobility and integrity.  Someone took the fall for something they didn't do today, just to try and regain a treat for everyone else tomorrow.  Special stuff, Katie W.

From behind a sunburnt face glowing just as much with joy, that is all

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

The kind of legends a camp is built upon ....

One of the irresistible pulls that brought be out of camp retirement was the promise of the privilege to observe an amazing transformation at source.  I've mentioned it before, but there are few other places, times and experiences when seemingly shy and retiring children metamorphose into something truly stunning and courageous.

I'm talking of course of the transformation from child to legend.  You don't really know its happening until its happened, and the signs become too obvious to ignore.  There's the heroism and daring deeds, but coupled to that, there's a more subtle change: they walk ten feet tall, the look eagerly for the next challenge, they take adults jokes and teases with greater freedom and enjoyment, and you generally start to feel that little bit warmer in their glow.

Today, we have taken our first real strides into the nitty-gritty, business end of camp.  Yesterday was about finding our feet, today was more about getting them very wet, climbing up walls and trees on them and using them to guide us across the assault course.  An early morning call and departure, a coach drive to Dartmoor, and we were there - 7 hours of wall to wall using those yesterday-found feet in ways that are often unimaginable.

So imagine, if you can, the legends that came out of this.  Jack (F), Lainey May, Jess, Harry et al have all seemed to grow a little today in the luminary stakes.  Jess has yet to find an obstacle that will stand in her way; despite the fact she is covered in bruises from hurtling at the climbing wall, she cannot stop smiling, and we have yet to see her move in a way that cannot be described as "skipping with glee".

It will surprise no-one that Jack is being as helpful and self-sacrificing as you can be.  When, however, you hear that he was all of this, whilst on a child-built raft in the middle of a freezing cold lake with, in his own words, "I got a wet bum, I have", then you will know that his fame must surely grown and grow.  Two particular members of the group found it very tough; they found it an awful lot easier due mainly to the big man's presence.

Not everyone is a legend through their large deeds or fearless action.  Some are legends because they quietly and humbly try, even when every bone in their body almost says no.  That climbing wall looked and felt like the north face of the Eiger today to Lainey, but she still got on it and climbed.  And Harry is just making life more fun for everyone else involved.  What more could we ask?

Are these the only legends? No, but we've only had one day.  No-one complained at the fact that we still had a lengthy walk this evening after the coach had dropped us off, even if we were all tired and starving hungry. That was pretty legendary.  Once again, the manners and courtesy of our children in the dining hall was a joy and a source of real pride.  All 40 children built and then climbed on to rafts and went into the middle of the lake - not one fell in. Legend.

That doesn't mean I'm saying that none jumped in of their own accord...

I got a real camp tingle today, again, one I've mentioned before.  I look at my watch and thought "It's 11.40 on a Tuesday".  I then realized I was neck deep in lake water and about to be run over by a raft.  Typical Tuesday really.

Until tomorrow - water sports day, and you all know how I feel about that - and the creation of more and more legends, that is all

Monday, 6 July 2015

Finally broke the news to my knees

So here we are again.  Exmouth camp, with 40 excited travelers.  Having vowed never again on several occasions, the lure was simply too strong for me to ignore.  I needed to be part of the magic again, if only for one more time.

So, having filled the coach with more sleeping bags than Milletts, we set off.  A loud but happy procession down the M5 delivered us to sunny (but not very warm) Exmouth, in all its glory.  I have genuinely missed the place.

But not the zig zags.  I really haven't missed them at all.  Neither have my poor knees.

However, we shall overcome.  It has already been a joy to reconnect with everyone associated with this camp and all the sights, smells and feelings that makes this place so special.  Two sessions on the beach and a fish and chip dinner later, and the first day has well and truly been a cracker.

So, what have we learned?  Nothing too ground breaking yet: year 6 are great at spotting sea life, Miss Stephens is far more competitive than we imagined, and the ever reliable Exmouth menu doesn't change.  And festive onesies look *good* at any time of year.

On major thing we have discovered,. or should I say rediscovered, is how impeccable our children's manners are in the dining room, and what an asset they are to us.  Much more of that to come, one feels.

Therefore, as we go to do the last tent walk around and batten down the hatches, all that remains for me to say is what a good start it has been, and how much we are all looking forward to the next few days.  I intend making good on the many promises I have made recently to throw several people off a bridge.

From this side of the teachers' biscuit collection, that is all.