Creating the Right Conditions

One of the most important things to understand before considering a change towards vertical tutoring is that the project should be regarded as a whole school change with all of the planning, consultation, logistical impact and change management that any large-scale project of this type will always bring. I have heard of schools who have announced this kind of change on the last day before a summer holiday. Each to their own I guess but that isn’t the way that we went about it! The project was planned and executed over a two year time frame – I would recommend that this is an appropriate length of time from initial review to final delivery.

I get the feeling that not as many schools have the energy to divert to this type of project right now. Even in the three years since we introduced Vertical Tutoring most UK schools have been forced to consider and absorb even more changes from external sources and a project like this therefore might be considered one step too far for some schools in the current climate. Almost all schools that have chosen to go down this route have found that the change to vertical tutoring has brought a number of highly significant benefits. I’m very pleased that we have made the change and would like to offer some insight on our experience should you be considering a similar pathway.

For me the main reason that we have made the change is to create the right conditions for highly effective learners. In previous years a number of our year seven students had remarked how scared they were of older students when they were year six pupils. Whilst this fear hadn’t been justified it was nonetheless understandable from a younger child’s point of view. We wanted to bust this myth in a practical way and ensure that younger children did not feel scared in the first year at being at a large comprehensive school.

We also wanted our older students to have a set of positive benefits from this new system also. Being given a definite set of responsibilities has benefited our year 11 students immensely. Having a very successful Sixth Form had made our year 11 students less high-profile than they might have been in an 11 to 16 school. VT offered our students a new set of responsibilities and, in fact, a new mind set for our older students. Younger students felt more at home and benefitted psychologically and physiologically. They no longer had that sense of fear about older students and they felt accepted and developed a sense of belonging very quickly.

We have four Houses led by a teaching Head of House. they are supported by a non teaching Learning Mentor. Each House has twelve tutor groups (21-23 students per group) of mixed age (Y7 – Y11) students. Students are spread equitably between all tutors and all houses. Every tutor and is trained to address the needs of all students at any time.

Students are grouped and spread to ensure that those who might require a higher degree of input are spread equitably across the four Houses. It is possible to group siblings in Houses to ensure that a strong family relationship can be developed between home and school.

The natural spread of students is also beneficial for the smooth and effective running of the school. Behaviour issues which might typically be found in year 9 are spread between all tutor groups in all Houses. Similarly, year 11 students who might require a higher level of input are spread and can be given a greater amount of individual attention by teachers since there are only four or five of them in every tutor group. Year 7 students can bring freshness and enthusiasm to every tutor group.

With horizontal systems it can become more difficult for some tutor groups to remain positive as children get older it can also become more difficult to motivate older students in the same age groups when there is no obvious academic reward at the end of the session. Good tutor groups rely on creating goodwill and a positive ethos. So much of the vertical methodology offers an opportunity for groups and individuals to develop and contribute positively and therefore tutor groups rarely have issues that require any significant input in terms of behaviour management.

Year seven students have a year 11 buddy who receives training on how to execute the role. They then take care of the Y7 student and meets with them during tutor time to ensure that they are enjoying their time at school.

The year 11 student gains significantly from this leadership role and develops a range of emotional skills from the time they begin their training in year 10 and then throughout the whole of year 11.

Advertisements

In Praise of the Blue Bird

I will offer a view on Vertical Tutoring in my next blog but as I prepare to watch the football results roll in I wanted to share a view on a very valuable self improvement tool. My Saturday routine in the winter months is to enjoy a good breakfast and to reflect on what has happened nationally in the world of education. As I did so this morning I was reminded of some first rate guidance from a parent of one of the members of my Year 9 rugby team at the time.

Around 12 years ago one Essex Saturday morning, I was preparing for a fixture, supping from a flask of tepid coffee, pumping up the match balls in the PE team staff office. Incidentally, the odour that hits you as you open the door of such bolt holes is the same wherever you are in the country. North, south, east or west the smell is usually revolting but somehow so very comforting.

I remember feeling that my career had got very slightly stuck. I was frustrated because my school had neglected me that year as I hadn’t been on a very expensive course – it was the fashion at the time. A very kind, smiling parent called Brian (who was a deputy head at another local school) was willing to listen to my gripe but very gently and professionally put me right. Brian was clear: “Your CPD is your responsibility. The best CPD you will experience is the stuff you do yourself.” Experience tells me that he was right.

For that reason I’m a great fan of Twitter. I think it is one of the best CPD mechanisms that I have come across during my teaching career. Understandably and pleasingly most of the posts on Twitter from educators focus on improving teaching and learning and also, of course, the current debate surrounding many of the changes being introduced by the current UK government coalition. I can not remember a period when school leaders have been faced with such a mountain of issues to address in order to ensure that the school they lead improves. Using CPD time wisely is essential for all teaching staff. Using Twitter also makes you realise that you are not alone.

The focus on T&L improvements is undoubtedly the right area to spotlight for our profession. It is crucial for teachers to continually analyse, improve and modify where necessary to ensure that delivery meets the needs of 21st-century young people. I fear for those schools and teachers who do not continually develop their strategy in this area. The Ofsted judgement in schools that fail to properly address the needs of the new framework as well as the young people in their care is likely to be savage.

If you want to find out about current views and approaches being taken to address the shifting sands in our craft then I can recommend Twitter wholeheartedly. I tend to use Twitter as a reading digest in the main. It allows me to keep up to date with experts across the range of education disciplines. Excellent Headteachers nationally who have been kind enough to put their thoughts on e-paper include: Geoff Barton (@realgeoffbarton) from Suffolk, John Tomsett (@johntomsett) from York and Tom Sherrington (@headguruteacher) from the grammar school sector in Essex. Other first rate tweeters and bloggers are available.

If schools do not embrace and understand the technological changes also being experienced by young people then I feel that the outcome could be disappointing for students and staff alike. For this reason I also recommend Mark Anderson from Clevedon School. Not only is he incredibly generous when it comes to sharing his resources and knowledge but he is also passionate and inspiring about introducing mobile learning technology into the lives of students in his school (@ictevangelist). iPad technology (or similar) is likely to be a significant factor in securing further improvements in many schools and ensuring that the potential disconnect between teachers and students is avoided. In fact, I believe that learning will improve through using such devices and is likely to be taken to a place beyond where we previously thought possible.

You can also consider the views of luminaries such as Dylan Wiliam, Sir Ken Robinson and David Cameron (no not that one – this one is a really clear thinker on education – @realdcameron). The best bit about Twitter is that it lets me learn when I want, where I want to and what I want. Twitter is easy to use, accessible, personalised and free.

There is a recent trend lately for some of the Twitterati to be a little self congratulatory – lots of virtual backslapping which clutters up one’s timeline. Perhaps it’s my inability to cope with seeing any school leader receive praise (it’s not part of the culture of school leadership at the moment). However, if we don’t congratulate each other we may die waiting for Messrs Wilshaw and Gove to offer a word of encouragement. Don’t be put off by this – give it a go!

I will now get my regular thrashing at connect 4 from my 6 year old. She is an assassin in disguise – do not be fooled!

20130112-165313.jpg

Why I’m bothering….

I’m not afraid to say it….one of the most enjoyable bits of my job is at Friday at the end of school when all the students have left the site and I have that feeling that everything has worked in sweet harmony and that our team has got it right. That lovely moment that hits you as you walk to the car park where you feel a little satisfaction that the team that you lead has really made a difference. Hopefully you know what I mean!

No one has been excluded, the ‘at risk’ students have attended with no serious incidents – a great week. Or is it?

One of the problems with any pastoral system is that too much time can often be taken by the most vulnerable. How can we be sure that the other students, those who go quietly about their business each day, are thriving, getting the most of what is available, learning deeply and genuinely operating somewhere near their best.

I believe that there are several factors that contribute to a school where this happens each day. I believe that it comes down to excellent, well thought out systems. Creating conditions for outstanding learning – that’s what it’s all about – that’s where the real enjoyment lies. The truth is however…I rarely experience the “Friday Car Park” feeling and always know there is so much that can be improved on Monday.

I try to read widely, research and uncover new ideas that will impact positively back at the ranch. I’m going to write about some of the systems that have worked in my various schools and, if anyone else is interested, perhaps we can debate a little….

To offer some context my school is high attaining, VA 1000, attendance rate of 96% currently with low rates of exclusion, fixed and permanent. Most students are white British and we have around 1350 students aged 11-18 on roll. The last time Mr Wilshaw’s troops paid a visit the grade was ‘1’ overall with a ‘1’ for ‘care, guidance and support’ also. T&L was graded 2 at the last inspection which isn’t good enough.

I love what I do and the people I work with. I have nothing but respect for staff who work in schools and give it their best shot each day.

This blog will be dedicated to those school staff who wake at 4am worrying about whether a student will improve tomorrow and wondering what else you can do that will make a positive difference. I also hope that we can all develop the ability to get back off to sleep for another couple of blissful hours. Perhaps we can communally look for a cure for this feature of term-time teacher sleep. I also know that this is not just reserved for teachers but I quite liked that little bit of alliteration – indulge me a little – I’m a PE teacher by trade!

20130112-001240.jpg