The best job in the world

this will be a quick one, I’m by the pool again and there are 29 students knocking about playing pool, chilling out and some dancing.

If you’re ever sure whether teaching is for you, check out yesterday’s blog about the difference we make to young lives.

Today I’m just going to say you get great opportunities and have a right laugh. I say yes to most things that go my way but if I’m honest 20 hours into a 24 hour coach journey, with kids tired and irritable and I was thinking “what have I done?”. Caring for and looking after these students in a foreign land (with foreign food) can be pretty stressful but the payback is that today I have howled with laughter at their wit and humour, screamed with joy on Europes biggest and fastest roller coasters and maintained some teacher street cred by being able to hold the photo poses at high speed.

Most of all I’ve loved seeing the kids have an absolute cracker of a time, at their happiest with each other, a beach and a volleyball!!!!

It might not feel like it every single day but teaching is the best job in world!!!!!

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A view from poolside

I’m writing this from the poolside in Barcelona (who says teachers have it too easy?!) in the glorious sunshine. It’s not all good news, my Irish heritage has blessed me with ginger hair and I don’t deal with the direct sunshine too well.

I’ve also got 29 students with me who have been at various points, lively, loud, boisterous, excitable, respectful, amazed,  shattered and just plain hot!!!  They’ve seen things they’ve never been introduced to before. In one case it was a beach. It wasn’t particularly a sandy Spanish beach that they hadnt seen by age 15, just a beach of any kind.

We’ve visited the nou camp and marvelled at the scale (and the ruthlessness of the marketing), we’ve hung out on the beach, had dinner together, had a Spanish lesson and then played a football match against a local team.

The Spanish lesson showed the students that the language was nothing to be scared off. Their confidence has grown and they’ve tried to engage in some simple use of the language with the locals.  They didn’t all go to the Spanish lesson as some were on the football arm of the trip and this led to perhaps the most enlightening moment. 

Our lads played the “youth” team of a local football club. We were outmatched by a couple of years in nearly all cases and were certainly physically inferior. Technically our hosts were much better too but a bit of English grit held us out to see half time at nil nil. We lost 4-0 but as well as the amazing spirit out lads displayed there was a moment in the second half that blew me away. One of our year 10 lads who doesn’t speak Spanish and has not studied it said he wished he could speak the language. Furthermore he vowed to go home, change his language settings on his playstation to Spanish and learn a bit!!!! 

Like I said, we lost but like so many football managers “I’ll take the positives!!!!”

The benefits of getting engaged in research

I like to think i’ve got a critical eye, i’m certainly not one of those that jumps on any old initiative without at least a healthy degree of cynicism and yet I really do love changing stuff to make it better. I’m one of those who suddenly wakes up in the middle of the night realising that my fondant fancy tree diagram lesson isn’t going to work because it’s Ramadan, that our new appraisal system needs this tweak to bring it in line with our target setting or even (most disturbingly) that everything tends towards e including all our student exam results. This latest (woefully inaccurate) revelation comes as a direct result of reading the excellent “Alex Through the Looking Glass” by Alex Bellos. In short, i’m one of those “always on” type of people. The problem with this is that I have a stack of ideas and yet the cynic and mathematician in me wants to know if they’re going to work before I make them happen.

Now this wasn’t such a problem when I was at the level of trying out stuff in my maths lessons with 30 students. I like to think my tube-map-vector creation lesson was an absolute triumph but i’m willing to admit that my water torture inverse proportion attempt was torture for everyone in the room. Now i’ve managed to find a position of some responsibility however, the initiatives I espouse have to be backed with something. So i’ve been diligent enough to do my own bits of research and reading  before I present anything and i’ve encouraged others to do the same but that isn’t the same as having a whole school like this founded on what works and challenging of what doesn’t.

So the epiphany (of sorts) came whilst stood at the urinal at Durrington High School which I know is a strange place for this to occur. On April 13th myself and Vice Principal Jason Bridges (https://twitter.com/jbridgesnine) were lucky enough to be hosted by Shaun Allison (https://twitter.com/shaun_allison) and Andy Tharby (https://twitter.com/atharby) for our whole school “visit another school” inset day. We saw loads of awesome things at Durrington but the one that really struck a chord with me was the engagement of key staff members and therefore the wider staff in current education research. Andy has whole school responsibility for making this happen and is the reason I was stood at a urinal reading a summary of recent research. Shaun is one of those people we’ve probably all seen on twitter who writes something and is instantly engaged with the views of another few thousand people and their knowledge of education. Suffice to say I left the day thoroughly inspired by both of them.

I determined that I wanted to tell people all about the fantastic work that happens at Ninestiles (https://twitter.com/Ninestiles), I’m incredibly proud of my school and want people to know. However, I don’t intend my blog and my twitter to just be a fanfare for Ninestiles Multi Academy Trust. I want it to serve as a vehicle for improvement and change as well as a tool for staff engagement. So myself and Jason worked  on our twitter accounts, persuaded others to sign up and now have a growing community of acolytes. Coincidently twitter paid dividends on my first night. A guy I’d never spoken to before saw my first blog post on my twitter feed, got in touch and helped me enormously with my work on my blog and life after levels (thanks again https://twitter.com/KristianStill).

The next step is for us to be more involved in research properly. As the Ninestiles twitter group has grown people have just seen more stuff and this has increased the level of conversation around school. As part of our teaching school alliance improvement strategy our Associate Vice Principal Elizabeth Ford has now put together a research and development sub group to look at how we kick-start a more comprehensive approach to research and provide staff with the necessary knowledge and guidance to begin some small scale work. We had our first meeting last night, it was great. Being always on,  I instantly went home and scribbled down a host of ideas for research projects and then this morning had a chat with a couple of staff members who could also consider some of these and be involved.

I’m so excited by the prospect of doing some research that I know my personal challenge will be reigning that in to be meaningful and lead to improvements. Most of all I’m excited by the prospect of our staff conducting research and sharing their work with our local community and a wider audience through twitter and the blogosphere to lead to change and better outcomes for our students.

If you’ve got any tips on the best ways to make this happen then please  get in touch either through here, at my twitter (https://twitter.com/alexhughesnine) or by email alex.hughes@ninestiles.org.uk

If you’d like to be involved or could help us please contact either myself or Lizzy Ford (elizabeth.ford@ninestiles.org.uk), we would love to hear from you…

The final nail in the study leave coffin?

So it’s just Statistics GCSE left for us now. An intrepid band of 59 of our students who had chosen at the end of year 10 to study stats are still in school. And when I say “in school” I still really mean it. Ninestiles has never really had study leave as I remember it from school. We’ve always had the students in until pretty much the first exam and then they were left to their own devices to prepare. Except that own devices bit had got smaller and smaller. The next step was to have lessons as planned until a chosen examination had finished and then to eliminate that from the timetable ensuring a smaller and smaller attendance until the final exam. In recent years we had moved toward this model with just an extra few revision sessions thrown in directly before the exam. It was well planned but like many schools in areas of high deprivation and low income we had struggled to get the students and parents to buy into this period.

This year however, we went the whole hog…

About 2 months before the examinations began the four curriculum Assistant Principals at Ninestiles, of which i’m one (twitter handles – @alexhughesnine, @vcreedonnine, @BeetisonJade, @SyAndersonnine) sat down with the year 11 timetable, the exam timetable and the BIG list of each student and their current grades. We (rather painstakingly) went through every period of the timetable from the beginning of the exam period, yes right back at the English IGCSE paper, to the Stats paper on Thursday and mapped in what we needed each session to look like.

We started with the point of view that the students should experience as much normality as possible all the way up to the exam. A quick google search of thoughts on study leave reveals a huge range of thoughts from those advocating students being in all the time right up to those that think we should completely allow students to study on their own. I read one blog by Helen Cadbury in 2014 (http://www.yorkmix.com/news/opinion/exam-students-forced-to-stay-in-school-as-study-leave-cancelled/) which talked of students “being forced to stay in school full-time” and spoke of students making their own choices “kids vote with their feet or the parents are forced to lie about made up illnesses”.

Now i’m going to nail my colours to the mast early here and say I disagree with these thoughts. Firstly, students have been in school for 12 or 13 years by this point of their life, the only thing that changes is our mindset in addressing the exam series. No-one thought sending them home in year 6 was a good idea before their SATS or in the old days before year 9 SATS. Indeed at no other juncture in their whole academic life to this point has anyone thought that the best way to prepare a student for what they face is to send them away. With one month left that is what many people choose. I can’t say I understand the logic!

Many points that are raised in the debate for study leave are well intentioned I believe but not entirely logical. I hear the thought that students will become stressed and overworked if they stay in school throughout the exams. I can only speak for the students I work with but I know that actually the familiarity of routine and structure of a timetable is reassuring to them. Seeing the same face that has cared for them, guided them, worked on their weaknesses and given them belief is incredibly comforting for the students. I will accede that for a small minority of students (perhaps a bigger group in other contexts) the freedom to study at home, on their own terms and away from distraction is of benefit and linked to this perhaps the most convincing argument for study leave is that students have the potential to waste their time in school and be put into meaningless, crowd control style “revision sessions”. So this is the area we really focused on addressing.

With that plan of all the exams, the lessons and the student priorities we set about mapping our ideal session into the timetable. To avoid meaningless sessions we immediately converted “finished” English lessons to become maths periods for those not undertaking English literature. For the 60 or so students who were still to complete English Literature we did of course continue with their usual provision therein. We temporarily juggled other year group priorities to free up the maths staff (using what used to be termed “gain time”) to provide the extra sessions. Wherever exams were imminent we planned a revision session the day before that exam and on the morning to get the students in the right frame of mind.

Where students had multiple exams in close proximity we focused on providing the one that would be of greatest need or benefit to the student. As subjects finished the timetable for each student would become increasingly full of their remaining lessons. It was a logistical nightmare and could never have been remotely achieved without the flexibility of our staff and the dedication of our admin team. However, I also believe it was a logistical masterpiece too.

We sold it well to our students. Discussed it with them, underlined why we thought it was of benefit and provided them with their very own completely personalised timetable. We reassured them that the sessions would be with their usual teacher as far as possible or with a subject expert in all but the most exceptional circumstances. We put in provision for the lost and wondering students and sat back ready to see the voting with their feet and mystery illnesses mentioned earlier. For most students, right until the end, it never came. In fact we were probably a victim of our own success in some cases. We envisaged some natural waning of our students attendance in the later weeks and staffed accordingly. It never really materialised. Indeed, even as an optimistic maths teacher I thought three sessions in one day for some students would be too much but most came to all and were motivated and engaged throughout! If I compare this to the previous year when I was getting single figures of students from my two combined C/D borderline groups then i’m delighted. Indeed one of my most difficult, least engaged and motivated students said that the process was a bit annoying but really helpful and laughed one day commenting that they wouldn’t have even been out of bed yet let alone revising at a 13:35 start session!

And so now we have just the 59 left for stats, we have cut them some slack in the final days, it was just the two sessions out of three today.

Like so many things at this time of year, it’s hard to truly evaluate the impact of this personalised timetable on each student. Once we see the results we might be able to pick out a thread running through the students that had full attendance and possibly the ones that had prioritised sessions. I do know one person that has been reassured by the whole process though – me!

How to build a high A*ttainer

So we have the classic problem, we work incredibly hard to get our 5 A* to C in English and Maths. We put our best teachers in these groups from the start of year 11 (every year we plan to move this provision down the years but it never quite pans out), we provide intervention, PIXL PLC tracking, homework resources, pre learning, post learning, past papers, targeted homework and so on. We feel the guilt that our higher attainers don’t always get the glare of the spotlight and that they deserve the same attention but at the same time we share the moral imperative to give the greatest number of our students the best possible life chance  by gaining that critical 5 grades. So it was that a couple of years ago we launched a project (one of three working on weaknesses we had identified internally) to specifically target the students with the greatest potential, across all subjects and across all years.

The role was opened up to any staff interested on a TLR 3 to be a two year project with regular feedback to Vice principals and interim/final feedback to the Academy Councillors. We had in mind that it was an excellent opportunity to grow our future leadership and as it happened two of our 2nd year (NQT) teach firsts were the successful candidates. One of my former mentees (Chris Guerin, @guerinmaths) and our English teacher (Hannah Roberts) and so were born the A*ttainers group.

They set about targeting all students who had prior assessment data that suggested they were capable of reaching grade A or A* in at least five subject. They launched the group with assemblies, a prominent notice board and meetings with key groups. One of the great things about Ninestiles is its level of equality and inclusivity so they had to be careful not to create an elitist group with any sense of entitlement so they were sensitive about how they managed this process and instilled the belief that having this potential had not earned you anything. Where students not immediately included in the group were shown to be capable in given subjects they were added to it ensuring that the fluidity of the group meant membership was seen as something to be earned.

Hannah has since moved on and her role has been taken by Steph Block (another of our teach first gang) and she has continued the great work. Steph and Chris have held assemblies with the A*ttainers to let them know where they are in their journey, celebrate their successes, show them possible opportunities and show them the paths taken by our first ever cohort of students within this group. They’ve also organised visits to grammar schools and post-16 colleges to develop the students aspirations.

All of this culminated in our A*ttainers evening last Thursday (4th June). Alongside our outstanding work related coordinator Jayne Talbot (@jayne_talbot), Chris and Steph  organised visits from a large number of the top universities around the country. I really can’t stress enough just how valuable Jayne’s work is in this area. She has a wealth of expertise which has allowed her to build long term relationships with a huge range of employers, further education institutions and work related training providers. The universities invited not only set up information points around the central point of the night but also offered workshops on topics identified by the attendees of last years events. The information and guidance they were able to offer students on courses, admissions, accommodation and university life general was invaluable. Added to this was a wealth of knowledge and experience from career guidance experts, apprenticeship offering groups, the fabulous Challenge Network (@TheChallengePO) which loads of our students attended last year, national employers like the NHS and larger local employers who may provide potential career paths for some of our brightest students. The evening ended with a moving and inspirational speech and performance from former Birmingham Young Poet Laureate Matt Windle (@mattwindlepoet) speaking of his own journey to a career which he loves and uses to motivate others. The audience of parents and students were completely absorbed by his work, I can’t recommend him highly enough.

My personal highlight was seeing former student Cameron Kigonya (one of my first ever KS4 students and one of the first I ever helped get an A*) return to talk about his journey to Oxford University. It was so inspirational to hear a former student speak of his journey through Ninestiles, the help and guidance he received and his path through post-16 education. It was also fantastic for him to be able to relate just how well he has made the progression into Oxford University, how much he is enjoying it and how comfortable he is there. We spend huge amounts of time telling students they can make it to this sort of place but hearing it from one of their own, who has actually done it removes another layer of fear and mystique. Cameron was also able to talk about all the practicalities of moving on to university in the current climate. Although i’m not that old, I did leave university about the time our current year 11 were being born. It means that my picture is definitely out of date and Cameron was able to really bring it up to date.

Our evaluation of the evening has shown that parents and students alike valued the evening extremely highly with the overwhelming majority of the 150 replies stating that they agreed or strongly agreed with the fact they were better informed, more aware and had received useful information, advice and guidance. Perhaps the most pleasing aspects have been the fact that this is now part of our regular calendar, embedded in the way the school works and also that we have grown leadership skills in two outstanding young teachers.

Many thanks to all our fantastic visitors on the night Aston University, Birmingham and Solihull Mental Health NHS Foundation Trust,Birmingham City University, Brilliant Careers, Cardiff University and Cardiff Met,Careers Guidance Solihull ,Dental Smiles Adademy, HealthTec at Baverstock Academy, IBM, NatWest Bank, Newcastle University, Newman University, Newnham College Cambridge, Solihull College, SAE, STEMNET, The Challenge/NCS, University of Birmingham, University of Law Birmingham, University of Southampton, University of Wolverhampton, University of York, Carillion plc,Birmingham Public Health and of course, Matt Windle – Poet.