Hello again. What we can become is quite exciting!

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Don’t think that I can’t hear you. Even from this lofty latitude, perched on a coastal shelf alongside the Highlands and Islands, I can still make out the distant mumble of your 1990’s football chant echoing round the end-of-season emptiness of the Borough Briggs stadium:

“Well it’s all gone quiet over there. It’s all gone quiet over there. Well it’s all gone quiet, all gone quiet, all gone quiet over there!”

And indeed it has. Very quiet. I’ve not posted a blog since I drove up here at the end of February with a car full of warm jumpers and sing-along CDs. True, I’ve sent a few tweets in the meantime, but mainly infuriating pics of empty golden beaches or landscapes replete with wild yellow flowers.

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So why the long, golden-sanded silence?

Well, partly because I’ve been in listening mode. I arrived in a college that I knew needed a new Plan. In my first few weeks, I put aside small talk and instead engaged my new colleagues with big questions. Questions like: What is the point of this college? What do we want to be famous for? How do we want to behave?

Questions like that deserve a lot of listening; and then quiet reflection, not over-exuberant blogging. Those three questions shape how we describe the mission, the vision, and the values of our organisation. They are the three highland ducks that we have to get in a row to start our strategic planning.

I’ve also been busy putting names to faces, getting to understand the politics (with a capital and all other sizes of ‘P’), and learning new skills. I used to be a teacher, you know. The last time I had a full-time lecturing job, we were in a different century. I thought I was at the cutting edge of technology then, but recently frankly, I’ve been embarrassing myself in planning meetings with my ‘innovative’ use of flip charts and post-its. An urgent DM to some of my #ukfechat collaborators gave me some new apps to master and use. Thank you all.

So how am I? I’m surprisingly well actually. Thanks for asking. We’re not short of issues to resolve at the moment, but despite the pictorial evidence to the contrary, I didn’t come up here for a seaside sinecure. I came up here to see how great at teaching and learning we could become. I think what we can become is quite exciting.

I’ve always been a big fan of paradox, and the contrasts we have here are full of it. I’m in a college that’s relatively large for the part of the world we are in, and relatively small for where I’ve come from. We have the headquarters of some world-famous companies on our doorstep here, and yet a student cohort whose rurality and remoteness drives us to deliver learning in very different ways. We’re an FE college, and we’re a university, delivering a truly tertiary offer of further education, work-based learning, and degrees. We’re a self-standing institution and an integral member of an academic partnership that spans roughly half the land mass of Scotland. I love paradox.

I’m a sensitive soul too, or I’d like to be. I’ve tried recently not to talk very much about what goes on south of Hadrian’s Wall. That would be bad form, though I have sneaked a few good ideas across the parapets. Whatever people up here might think, the Scottish ways of doing FE and HE have very much to commend them, starting with the fact that they all come under the one unitary funding council. The ‘Scottishness’ of how we approach education and its challenges here is, I believe, a real advantage to us all.

You’ll be glad to know I’m getting over the language barriers too. I think my Northern Irish DNA has helped with this. Some local terms (like, “it’s a bit of a guddle”), I’m embracing wholeheartedly. Others I have resisted, though I’ve finally agreed to treat “outwith” as if it were a real word. I’m still opposing “timeously” though (pronounced timmy-us-lee) as a realistic alternative to timely.

I’m also learning to treat acronyms with particular caution. Although the fundamentals of running a college don’t change drastically as you head further north, there is a whole new set of language and acronyms to come to terms with. The dangerous ones are the ones you think you recognise from your old life. I spent my first three weeks happily discussing success rates (SR) until I realised everyone else was talking about student retention.

When I first arrived I said that governing bodies and senior management teams talk too much about budgets and buildings, and not enough about teaching and learning, our core ‘business’ process. I said we’d be different. We have tried to be. Through hello and high water we have talked teaching and learning. But, you can’t escape the tyranny of budgets in these cash-strapped times, and there are some of our buildings we need to escape from in the very near future. (Not the ones below!)

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This blog is about me re-establishing contact with you. I’m still here, just not where you saw me last. The thing about ‘remote’ places is that although they may be more difficult to get to (and this one is only 35 miles from a regional airport), once you’re there, they aren’t remote at all. They’re full of people, and work, and culture, and learning.

There’s also 4G and broadband, so there’s no real excuse not to be in touch. You could also come and see us. There are some lovely places to stay, and I’ve invested now in a bed for the spare room.  So if you want to share in British tourism’s best kept secret, or be welcomed at one of the friendliest colleges I’ve been in, then let me know. I’ll refrain from sending you any more sea view pics but be assured, our spare room is a room with a view; unfortunately the view is over the car park.

 

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Seeing the wood for the trees: leading, teaching, supporting

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“I can’t see the wood for the trees.”

That’s a phrase that has always puzzled me. Which wood are you talking about? You might be thinking that I think too much, but it’s important. And I really like trees. Let me explain.

wood (wʊd)

noun

  1. the hard fibrous material that forms the main substance of the trunk or branches of a tree or shrub, used for fuel or timber.
  2. an area of land, smaller than a forest, that is covered with growing trees.

You are surrounded by trees, or you spot them a short distance from the Motorway Service Station where you have stopped on your way to your new job. For someone who really likes trees, that is a good thing. I took this picture of trees off the M74 at Abington. But which is the wood that you think I can’t see?

Is it the hard fibrous material, the living breathing thing that is the essence, the heart of what the tree is, and is also what you will use to create the home, the bed, the chairs, the goalposts, the cricket bat, the boat, the dining room table… in short the shape and structure and fabric of your life?

Or is it the bigger picture of the collection of trees clumping across the countryside, setting the context of our landscape, a landmark, a habitat, a flood defence, a visible presence to us of the changing seasons… in short the shape and texture of the land we live in?

As ever, with two really good alternatives, it can be both. And usually should be. Which is why I get confused. If I’m not seeing the wood for the trees, then there’s two things I can be missing.

If you’re a leader in education, or a teacher, or otherwise supporting the learning process for learners, then seeing the wood for the trees is of vital importance. Otherwise you will just keep bumping into trees. You’ll get tangled in the undergrowth surrounding trees. And in education, there are a lot of trees to bump into. Trees of all shapes and sizes and, to someone like myself, trees of endless fascination.

There is policy, and policy with unintended consequences. There are funding rules, and funding changes. There are meetings, and 101 ways to be held to account. There is action planning, progress monitoring. There is marking, and the moderation of marking. There are validations, approvals, verifications, audits, inspections…

The tyranny of trees is that they distract you from the wood. And there are two types of wood we need never to miss.

  1. We need to see the essence, the essential of what we do. We teach, we facilitate learning, and that learning transforms individual lives. That’s what we do.
  2. We need to see the bigger picture. We need to know the needs of the communities we serve (individuals and organisations), and see how to meet those needs with positive impact.

Everything else is just so much foliage.

You can’t have wood without trees, and you can’t have a wood without trees. The challenge for us is to order our working lives so that our vision is centred on what is essential and on the bigger picture of what we are trying to achieve. Everything else is only useful to us if it enables us to achieve that vision. Everything else should be a slave to that vision, not make us its slave.

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Trams or Tractors? Tractors or Trams? Twice.

I wrote this (prophetic!) draft blog last Spring. As I’ve almost failed to publish a blog in a month for the first time since I started blogging, I thought I’d better publish it now – as originally drafted but with one new photo!

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It’s funny sometimes how our personal worlds and our professional lives collide. Actually it would be funnier, more strange, if they didn’t. So much of what we do comes from who we are, and so much of who we are is defined by what we do. I am a… [insert profession/mild term of abuse here].

Having taken the decision to move on from where I am now, I am currently challenging myself as to how open I really am as to what I might do next, and to where I might do it. Hence one of the questions I’ve been asking is “Can I work equally well, whether surrounded by Trams or Tractors?”

I’ve usually been seen as a townie. Born and bred near one big city and then settled down and raised a family on the edge of another. My townie credentials are watertight – if I want them to be.

Yet a number of interesting opportunities recently have lain outside the big cities: some have had a strong rural theme to them; some have even been perilously close to the seaside.  And Manchester, as we know from Ian Brown, has everything except a beach*.

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When I think of it, though, I went to secondary school with people whose idea of the ideal driving machine wasn’t a Maserati or Ferrari but a Massey Ferguson. My parents actually moved to live in the town of Harry Ferguson’s birth, with bullocks grazing beyond their back garden and alpacas fussing about across the road out front. I grew up as close to tractors as to trams.

The other Trams or Tractors question is more fundamental to colleges than my own personal future location. It’s about the model we use to describe and understand what it is that we do in education, and how we do it. Ken Robinson touched on the issue a couple of years ago here (at 14 mins 18 secs).

My description of it goes like this…

In colleges we are driven by data, just as schools before us have been driven by data.

Why? Because of the input-output model we have adopted for our education system. We use data to describe our inputs: prior attainment, initial and diagnostic assessments, range of learning needs.  We use data to judge our outputs: qualification completion rates, student progression and destination rates, value-added measures.

In between these two sets of data, these inputs and outputs, we have a black box, the black box of the business processes that we use to process students. Inside the black box are the things we do.This input-output model is a manufacturing model, an industrial model, as befits us as the descendants that we are, the children, of the industrial revolution.

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But when you look inside the black box, you don’t find an industrial process. The process you find is closer to an agricultural one: planting, feeding, watering, nurturing, pruning, training, harvesting – activities designed to encourage nature to take its course, in the best possible way, a course that is about growth, development and maturation.

I believe that this is a major cause of disconnect and misunderstanding between most senior leadership teams and their teachers.

One group of people is trying to run a multi-million-pound, industrial-sized, input-output machine – in an environment that demands the justification of measurable results. The other is a group of horticultural experts lovingly pruning their bonsai and training their raspberry plants to climb up vertical bamboo canes.

But which group is right?

Well, neither of course, and both. Colleges are not, and cannot function as, collectives of subsistence farmers or experimenting green-fingered experts, disconnected from the rigours and demands of a modern economy and its shrinking public sector budget.

But nor is teaching an automatable, mechanised process that generates the same predictable, standardised outputs of progress from each teaching intervention.

Colleges are factory-like organisations operating in a post-industrial age that are having to learn how to adapt, survive, and thrive in a persistently changing and probably ever more hostile environment. But even our image of agriculture is changing. Just as  Agri-Tech conglomerates are moving us from traditional farming techniques, those at the technological edge of education are moving us towards educational hydroponics** where we have to learn how to grow our crops with neither soil nor a field to plant them in, teaching more with less, learning without classrooms.

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People (and societies) will always need skills, just as people (and societies) will always need food. The people who understand learning and learners are going to have to work very closely with people who understand how to make multi-million pound corporations work. Or be the same people.

Otherwise, we may well end up with a learning and skills sector that is unsustainable, dysfunctional, or maybe even, not there.

As for me, I’m moving on. Not sure yet where, nor what to. But life is all about change and all about learning. So I’m choosing change, and will continue learning.

Trams or tractors? Yes please. Both.

 

 

* the new pic is the view from my new front doorstep

** the hydroponics pic was from cfgrowers.com

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Route N165: the Road to Teacher Well-being

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“I often wonder if the job of leadership is to look after the staff.”

Well that’s not something you hear every day. I can sense some of my past leaders snorting at the very idea. That’s the joy of Twitter, I suppose, the beauty of Blogs. Every now and then you read something that stops you in your tracks, turns you back into a reflective practitioner.

I am from a people who like to celebrate anniversaries. It’s a habit that in general I have tried my best to get out of, but sometimes I just can’t help myself. Today is the first anniversary of that blog by Martyn Reah, the one that gave wider attention to the thinking that he and others had been doing around teacher well-being. I thought we should celebrate it.

If you read no further than this, then please proclaim with me now: “Happy Anniversary, Teacher Well-being!!”

If you were ranking the major impacts of social media on the teaching profession in the last 12 months, then I would suggest the following list:

  1. the demise of graded teaching observations
  2. the explosion of interest in teacher well-being

Though not necessarily in that order.

Whereas the nutrition-based 5-a-day can be constructed from any available fruit or vegetable, the teacher 5-a-day has a more defined structure. What Martyn presented was an evidenced-based model of well-being, hung upon the following framework:

  • Connect… with the people around you
  • Be active… (exercise makes you feel good)
  • Take notice of things… (be curious, be aware, reflect)
  • Keep learning… (it makes you more confident)
  • Give… (Thank someone. Smile. Volunteer)

This will not be new to you, unless you lost your WiFi connection 12 months ago and have not since had the pleasure of meeting a teacher with a curious smile on their face. If you want to catch up, just search  on Twitter for #teacher5aday with or without any or all of the following hashtags: #connect, #exercise, #notice, #learn and #volunteer.

You may also like to take a look some of the 5-a-day spin-offs such as #teacher5adayPE, #teacher5adaysketch or #teacher5adaycalendar

My only problem with this valuable initiative was that I kept forgetting which the 5 things were that comprise the teacher’s 5-a-day.

I am from a people who liked to take their small children to church every Sunday. It’s strange the things that make an impression on a small child. I may have just imagined this, but I’m convinced that the hymns in church were announced on a board by their number and that the psalms to be sung were denoted by Roman numerals. The Romans may have built wonderfully straight roads but even the youngest version of me could tell that their number system had no practical logic to it at all.

The older me, however, noticed how many strands of #teacher5aday  start with a Roman numeral: Connect, Learn, eXercise, Volunteer. Noticed that too? I also noticed that CLXV is 165 in real numbers. So N165 became my own personal mnemonic for teacher well-being (until I shared it with you just now).

And that is how in turn the Route Nationale 165 from Brest to Nantes has become for me the symbolic road to teacher well-being.

Coincidentally, the N165 is also the road we took from Quimper to Carnac on our last mega-family holiday. Carnac was the place my mother-in-law (whose advanced age I am forbidden to disclose) was seen swimming far out to sea, followed by her duckling daughter and grandchildren, holding out in front of her an old ice cream carton containing a soon-to-be-liberated crab, bought for that very purpose that morning in the hypermarche.

All five strands of teacher well-being were there, present in that one episode. If I had been a teacher at the time, and not a disquieted father on the shore, I would have considered myself as being very well indeed.

May your next twelve months be replete with innovative and adventurous well-being too. 

 

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More. Less. Better. Clever. Here in the Hay Day of Further Education.

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A former colleague of mine retired about ten years ago. When I asked him why he was leaving, he replied with one phrase.

“The halcyon days of FE are over,” he said. You may feel that he was a man of prophetic gifts. He was also a brickie working in a department of electricians. The next day, one bright spark had stuck a poster of him up on the staffroom wall, cheerfully misquoting him.

“The halogen days are over!” it read. Dark humour?

The Hay Day* of this blog’s title is a proprietary brand, not a typo. It’s an App. My entire household** are now using the entire sophisticated electronic wizardry of their smartphones merely to make-believe that they are highly successful farmers developing increasingly impressive farms.

At any hour of the day, and often night, I am likely to be disturbed by a disembodied Moo, Baa, or a low sustained booming noise coming from my partner’s handbag to inform her that the cows need milking, the sheep shearing, or that the ship is about to dock to collect her ordered produce. Preoccupations of what I was mistakenly considering to be ‘real life’ are pushed to one side in the interests of simulated agriculture.

One aspect of this game has caught my attention though. It has a PEGI 3 rating, which means that it is suitable for all ages. There is nothing in it to scare the children. In other words, Hay Day farming does not use abattoirs. When the pigs have been sufficiently fattened, they are placed into some sort of high pressure sauna contraption that sweats their ready-made bacon right off them. They never have to leave their pen. They emerge from their ‘saunas’ in rude good health, pencil-drawn thin and ready for their next feed.

Which brings us back to FE. Despite the Chancellor’s recent apparent Spending Review generosity, the mantra of ‘more-for-less’ has embedded itself deeply in our psyche, coiled itself around and into our DNA. Whether on an institutional basis, or by regions across the country, efficiency and cost-effectiveness have become our watchwords. And that is why we must guard against engaging in the Hay Day version of Further Education.

That PEGI 3 version of FE is very scary. Those who can leave, leave. Those who are left, are left doing what they do, and also covering some of the leavers’ tasks that we thought wouldn’t need to be done, but now find that we can’t do without.

More-for-less cannot mean that we keep doing what we have always done, and keep doing it in the same way, only using ever fewer people and ever less resource to do it with. We cannot run round and round our pen, faster and faster, in ever-decreasing circles, and still hope that our sector will emerge from its sauna of severances anything but stick-thin in terms of capacity, resilience, and innovation.

More-for-less can only be justified if it is also better-for-less. It only works if we end up working more ‘clever’ not just working more. Some of the instinctive finance-driven responses to this new financial reality have been as thoughtful as jerking knees: close buildings; cancel courses; disband support services; move away from hard-to-reach and hard-to-teach; work longer; work more.

Could pedagogy-driven responses think our way into better and complementary solutions? There is so much that we need to be more clever about: clever about how we free up our teachers to do what they do best – teaching and developing teaching; clever about freeing up our leaders and managers to lead and manage – not just to document their proficiency in leadership and management; clever about how we work with other services to join our services up, to fill in the gaps and to unduplicate the duplication.

Of course the worst time to try to think about all this cleverness is the very time when the cows are mooing, the sheep are bleating and the low sustained booming noises are booming lowly and loudly in a sustained way. An even worse time, though, will be to do it when others have done the thinking for us, and taken the decisions that we would never ourselves have decided.

Which is why many colleges now are thinking hard and thinking fast; and sometimes thinking the unthinkable.

The halcyon days are long gone, and good riddance. I was never a great fan of smoke-filled staffrooms and long liquid lunches. But we might all just be a bit more clever than we think. Just imagine what it could be like if now was about to become the start of FE in its heyday…

 

*Hay Day by Supercell. Other farm simulation games are available.

**Except me.  Just in case you wondered.

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Snapshot of the first ever UKFEchat conference

 I’ve had this idea of how to report on the UKFEchat conference in London last week. It involves capturing a random set of images and impressions that give just a flavour of the event. I was going to call it ‘Snaps-of-the-Chat’ but that sounded a bit clumsy. So I might call it ‘snapchat’. Catchy phrase, eh? Who knows, maybe I should copyright it?

Party Bags

Friday afternoon spent with @mrssarahsimons and @clyn40 stuffing goodies into UKFEchat conference bags: hessian bags, kindly produced by the TES, bags that smell like digestive biscuits, almost edible. After a hundred or so children’s parties I consider myself a master of the party bag. Stress balls, pens, and programmes are just some of the items on the production line. @AnnGravells pops in to add some order to the chaos and a passing Director of Diocesan Education ends up hole-punching name tags and threading them onto lanyards. That kind of sums up UKFEchat for me, @JPAMDG. Teamwork is us.

Registration
Meeting twitter people in the flesh: always a bit disconcerting. You build up this relationship with @someone online and then have to start all over again when you meet them in the real world. Does @treezyoung really look like her Charlie Brown avatar? Or Snoopy? We have a good division of labour. The welcome team, people like @Bex83 or @patricemiller who will reliably, genuinely, smile at people and make them feel welcome, steer the new arrivals in our direction. Carolyn does the induction. I tick them off the list. No smiling required. We keep registering as the latecomers arrive, and from the Council Chamber upstairs we catch the first distant whoops as Sarah’s ‘Welcome’ starts the day.

Hosting

I host two conference sessions. You will never know how good one of these sessions was because I was also in charge of pressing the ‘on’ button on the digital recorder. I did. Then I pressed it off again. They say that for some classic events you had to be there to know how good it was. In this case, I’m afraid, it’s true. @furtheredagogy (who can make Powerpoint look like a real medium) had them standing in the aisles, waving their arms madly in response to questions about English and maths. @sewdarngood had them sitting in circles conjuring up killer questions for Learner Voice. There was a genuine warmth in both sessions and some real thinking too.

Bluff

@bobharrisonset is a FELTAG folk-hero to many in the sector. He has forgotten more techie stuff than I will ever know. He is a relentless sponsor of teachmeets and an advocate of learning, particularly if an ‘adult’ tag is attached to it. The session is packed. Even free-thinking twitter types have their must-sees. Bob is unfailingly entertaining in that bluff northern way of his. He has the audience at ‘hello’. For a moment though he is unnecessarily rude about a couple of other speakers. This could go either way. Then back on track he urges the audience to become ‘paradigm pioneers’. He’s not wrong. But how? Once the session is over I’m still asking “What next? How does that happen?”

Heroes
The tweets tell you that Geoff Petty is another hero to many. I slip into the back of his session to see what all the fuss is about. Evidence based teaching. He is talking about research informed practice. It’s a good session, another thought-provoking session. I agree with almost everything he says. Maybe I’m suffering from confirmation bias too? He talks about ‘supported experiments’. Says it’s what turns research into improved teaching. I called it action learning sets for teachers in my last college. It worked. Whatever it’s called, he’s right again. It is the way to go, the way to enable teachers to grab hold of their own professionalism. And he seems pretty cool with it too. Almost a hero.

The debates

I arrive too late to catch much of the Reputation and Professionalism debate, but not too late to notice that @gillersn has been masterful in her chairing of it. She looks like the Dimbleby family’s favourite daughter. The next debate is about Strength in Unity and is led by Carolyn. She is flanked by our various representatives: Tutor Voices, the ETF, the College of Teaching, and UCU. She soon has them eating out of her collaborative hands, as they discuss what each brings to the party and how they can leverage the maximum impact from their collective work. And what of UKFEchat? Where does this informal cross-section of FE practitioners on social media fit in? What role do we have to play?

The lunch

I collect my plough-person’s sandwich, crisps and cuppa and mingle. I catch up with Paul Joyce on his very interesting week, and that’s before the conference Punch-Up. I take issue with a former colleague telling everyone who will listen that I am her old boss. Former please @jacquirayner, not old. Then I help Andrew Harden from UCU  track down a previously mentioned and uniquely Tory-votin’, huntin’ and shootin’ land-based colleague. We are a broad church. You’re very welcome as long as you love learning and are loving FE.

There’s a real buzz about the place and informal feedback from all the sessions I’ve not been able to catch up on yet are telling the same story. I sense a slight frisson of excitement though about the last debate of the day. @stephenexley from TES has turned up to referee what some fear might turn into a bare-knuckle punch-up.

The Punch-Up

IMG_5690Dan Williams introduces the last session of the day as if he is anticipating the Rocky to end all Rockies. Many of us are. @drmattoleary and Paul Joyce from Ofsted are debating the nature and use of classroom observations. Surely it can only end in tears? But here’s the thing. If you put two people from our sector together who know clearly what they’re talking about, and care about it too, more often than not they’ll end up talking about the same truths, saying the same or very similar things. The fighters clinch; the referee is about to yell “Break!” when he suddenly realises that they aren’t fighting. They’re dancing. Strictly dancing. A world in union. That’s what UKFEchat does to you. So damned positive, even when the darkest clouds are in the sky…

And there you have it. The first UKFEchat conference. But only a glimpse. There were so many presentations I didn’t see, people I didn’t meet, friends I haven’t name-checked (sorry). Was it all that? Well, in my eyes at least, yes, it was. So what’s next?

The pics and tweets I’ve lifted from my timeline were from Sarah Simons, Scott Hayden, Julia Smith, Rachel Irving, Jay Derrick, Kay Sidebottom, Hilary Nunns, as well as three of my own. If you’re not happy with that, DM me or sue! On second thoughts, don’t tell Sue.

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The second #UKFEchat visit to Ofsted HQ: a personal perspective

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This morning I visited Ofsted HQ in Holborn with colleagues and friends from the FE social media group on Twitter. This was the second such visit.

The first took place eight months ago as part of what I had envisaged who would be an invigorating long weekend in London: starting with a pre-election policy seminar; a table with fellow #UKFEchat Guide Book writers at the annual TES FE awards; and then that first meeting with Lorna Fitzjohn at Ofsted. Train tickets and hotel rooms were booked, bags were packed: and then life intervened.

Or rather, death did. At the last minute, I had to cancel the journey. Instead, I sat with three of my children around the hospital bed of my father, watching his last, peaceful breaths, as his life drew to a close. With apologies to the late Bill Shankly, Ofsted visits like Ofsted inspections are not life and death, and however much they may feel like it at the time, they don’t even come close in importance.

You’d be surprised, shocked even, what a revelation that was to me.

So this visit to meet with Ofsted’s FE lead Paul Joyce was in some ways a follow-up to the previous one, but in many ways it was also like a new start: some new personnel on each side; a new government setting the agenda for the sector; and a new inspection framework to work to. And, probably, there was a more measured, thoughtful approach from me.

In recent years I feel like I’ve seen the best and the least best of Ofsted; and probably they of me. I’ve had a senior role in three college inspections. The first ended up in me deputising for our Principal at the annual Outstanding Providers’ dinner in London. I like to think that was out of recognition of my part in the inspection, but I may just have looked in need of a good feed.

The second resulted in me running out of tissue boxes as I tried to stem the tears of anger and frustration of both the inspection team and my colleagues: the grade was satisfactory, the experience definitely required improvement. The third, and most recent, was a good inspection in every sense of the word. It was conducted with consummate professionalism on both sides and resulted in an agreed and improved verdict, which actually made me more proud than achieving the earlier Grade 1.

Today’s meeting was a wide-ranging discussion that included the importance and nature of progress; the use of targets; deployment of specialist inspectors; English and maths (of course, and how); the impact of funding cuts on inspection grades; outstanding culture; high needs; and an embarrassing confession. I’m sure other colleagues will blog in the details for you.

The confession was mine. Whisper it quietly, but I actually like this new inspection framework. I like the way that the first stated criterion for an outstanding college in this framework is one where “leaders, managers and governors, have created a culture that enables learners and staff to excel”. Learners and staff, mind you. To excel. The framework’s Leadership and Management criteria then tease out what this outstanding culture might look like.

I’m intrigued by the juxtaposition of an almost macho language of drivers that are unwaveringly high, uncompromising, and unflinching alongside the democratic language of leading teachers so that they reflect and debate, are deeply involved in their own development, and are motivated and trusted to take risks and innovate.

In ordinary times, the balance of these juxtapositions would be difficult to achieve. These are not ordinary times.

We know that a perfect storm has been brewed for the FE sector. The reality of severe and repeated budget cuts has led to significant job losses across the sector, and a prediction that by the end of this year well over half the colleges in England will be in financial crisis. The political and structural challenges of Area Reviews, and laudable moves to localise accountability and planning arrangements, indicate a period of significant upheaval for everyone involved in the sector.

I think I understand Ofsted’s role in all this, to report and to inform, but not to be involved in structural decision-making, nor to “make allowances” where it finds that the environment we have created contributes to a poor student experience or poor progress, outcomes, or progression. I also think that is right.

The time we had together today flew by, and as I indicated above, we covered a lot of ground. As you would expect, the discussion was conducted in an atmosphere that was respectful and interested, on both sides. Conversations like this can only help foster a better understanding of the role inspection can play, at its best, in our sector.

We don’t get to choose what times we live in, nor the extent to which those times will be ‘interesting’. These are our times, for better or worse. Those of us who have any level of stewardship role in this sector carry a responsibility to find and implement solutions that will ensure that we can continue to perform our key purpose, the thing that makes us get up and at it every morning: to transform individual lives and to support the economic success of businesses, communities and our country. Only a small task…

We can also do our damnedest to create and maintain that outstanding culture, to remain obsessed with excellence, and driven by it; but also to create a culture in which we can trust the professionals to be professional and to develop that professionalism, both of them.

And we can keep talking.

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