The day David Cameron came to Ninestiles…

Well it was meant to be the first day of the holiday. Like every other teacher around I had gleefully turned off my alarm for this morning, failed to iron a shirt and planned a nice easy morning watching the final round of the Open. Except then I remembered we were due to have a visitor. No names, no clues other than that it was a “high ranking member of the cabinet” and an SLG only invite. I wearily re-set my alarm, figured I better dig out a shirt and tie and then pondered who it could be.

Being a big sports fan I watched the train wreck of the Ashes yesterday afternoon and had missed all manner of government announcements about a key note speech in Birmingham on Monday from the PM. So I casually strolled into Ninestiles at 8:30 am on the first day of my hols to be greeted by all manner of security staff, sound technicians, police officers and government aides. And so began the build up to the Prime Ministers speech on tackling extremism.

As I’ve said before I’downloadm incredibly proud to work at Ninestiles. From the day I walked through the door ten years ago I’ve felt a warmth and compassion in the place that just brings people together. I was born just down the road and my father went to Ninestiles as a boy so I understand the community that we live in and have always been at home in a multicultural melting pot but life at Ninestiles has always seemed so diverse, so easily. However, you can never take this for granted. We may think it happens by luck or by serendipity but actually it happens with hard work and love.

In his speech David Cameron spoke of the need to live with each other in a community of strong British values. We work incredibly hard to ensure our students understand and respect each other. We have daily assemblies on topics that relate to community cohesion, tolerance and respect. Our first few for next year are respect, democracy, sameness and differences and the rule of law. I promise I didn’t make those up and couldn’t believe it when David Cameron mentioned them directly in his address. We have fortnightly Aspire sessions aimed at actively engaging our students in their community and ensuring they know about their peers. Our staff are well trained, knowledgeable and vigilant, keen to protect us all but also desperate to ensure our students have a chance to build lasting and trusting relationships with adults in school. When we had Prevent training and FGM advice it felt like a natural part of building our knowledge base and protecting our community. Our tutor groups are smaller than you might expect with two teachers in each room to ensure that there is an adult every child should be able to relate to at the start of the day.

We start the process early… This year, in two weeks time I’m part of a fortnight of activities to introduce the new year 7 to each other and to some teachers. It’s ostensibly come from catch up premium money but we supplement it to ensure all our students feel part of the Ninestiles family from the very start. We plan our trips with our community at heart. Last year every year 7 visited a Mosque, a Gurdwara, a Synogogue and a Church. In his speech David Cameron mentioned the powers that will now exist to remove passports form children that are thought to be at rick of fleeing overseas. I can see the process that leads to this but I would also point to the students that I took to Barcelona in my last blogs that had never left the country before. Travelling overseas in their own diverse little group to learn about other cultures. The wonder of a group of Sikhs, Muslims, Christians and Atheisists marvelling at La Sagradia Familia breaks down many stereotypes.

So when the Prime Minister spoke of how we could tackle extremism I reflected on the things we do here at Ninestiles. We don’t do it all perfectly but our values mirror those outlines in the speech. We give everyone a chance regardless of background. This year we’ve seen Afghan refugees sit in exams alongside the rest of our school community, safe in the knowledge that we’ve given them a real start. We avoid the grievance justification by being scrupulously fair to all groups in all situations. We try to tackle poverty in all our groups by the effective distribution of the funding we get using it sensitively and intelligently to create opportunities.The liberal values that our school lives and breathes by ensure students and teachers alike are given true freedom of speech and worship. We openly condemn violence in any form in school and deal with it earnestly. We have strong voices amongst the teacher groups which give themselves and students an identity that ties in with cultural and spiritual heritage as well as strong British values. We could do more to hear even more from the students in this way, we’ll make it happen.

I came into teaching 10 years ago to help young people succeed. I thought it would be easy, teach them maths, help them do well. I give no heed to their background from a teaching point of view. I want every student to do equally well regardless of their race, religion or socio-economic background. As I’ve progressed I’ve come to realise that it is all inter-related and growing the community raises the aspiration of the students. Academic success and a strong relationship with peers, teachers, families and the school community actively fights religious extremism in all its forms. There have been times when I’ve wondered (loudly) if the culture of our great school was too much about being a great citizen and a valued member of the community at the expense of the greatest academic success. Today I couldn’t be prouder that it is like this. I want us all to succeed together, for the benefit of everyone, regardless of who we are, what we believe and where we come from.


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 ( 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!