Saturday, 27 October 2012

Beyond Outstanding - The Challenge Partners Peer Review

This week we have hosted an Ofsted inspector and three senior leaders from other schools for our Challenge Partners peer-led Quality Assurance Review process. Their job was to come and look at the school in a supportive but challenging way and to provide us with a report, for our own consumption, to reflect their (and our) thoughts in light of the review.

I won't say too much about the Challenge Partners, as you can have a look at their website to find out more.

What I will say is that it is a mutual organisation created to keep the work of the London Challenge (and Northwest and Black Country Challenges) going. The ethos that underpins the organisation is that schools can support each other to raise standards and achievement. The Quality Assurance Review is therefore the only part of the process that is mandatory. Every school in the partnership has to participate in one and every school has to give two of its staff a week off in order to conduct two reviews of other schools. It's a model Sir Michael Wilshaw seems determined to copy with his public pronouncements on Heads of outstanding schools being forced to become Ofsted Inspectors. What this model has in its favour is that it is based upon a willingness to help and to be helped: an invaluable quality in any school-to-school support process.

A month ago I was fortunate enough to visit two other schools as part of their review team and was struck by the collegial and supportive nature of the process. We reviewed two schools in Devon with very different histories and current situations. The discussions we had were powerful for all parties and I took away as much for my own school as I left for the schools ostensibly being evaluated. The experience left me both eager for our school's review and nervous about what it would tell us: there is definitely a rigour and robustness that undergirds the whole process (one for @learningspy @johntomsett & @missJLudd there).

The first challenge to overcome was to manage the potential threat of the process for Canons teachers, particularly in light of the current union action. I needn't have worried. Canons staff were more than happy to participate in a process that on the surface has a similar structure to Ofsted, but that in reality is far more empowering. They volunteered in huge numbers to be observed, to meet with the team members, co-observe their colleagues and to showcase our areas of outstanding practice (Science, English, Drama and Music if you'd like to know). It's a testament to their commitment and dedication to their own professional development that rather than having to twist arms to get people involved I had to console those who I had to leave out of the process.

The second challenge was to ensure that the team had all the information they needed. The process involves the team spending the Monday of the review week looking over the RAISEonline reports, SEFs and School Improvement Plans of both schools. We added more information about our latest exam results and other documents to help the team get a flavour of our distinctive ethos. I even took them over to their base in the other school so that the rapport-building process could begin. Peer review has empathy built into it in a way that Ofsted never could, and perhaps offers a way in which partnership working may one day supplant the current model of school accountability.

The third challenge was the review itself. The good thing about having other school leaders in to observe your school is that there is no shortage of inquisition involved. It may seem that there could be a problem with too little challenge and a cosiness borne out of a you-scratch-my-back over-collegiality. Alternatively it may seem that there could be a problem with too much challenge borne out of having too many successful school leaders all saying "in my school we do it like this". But actually the process managed to walk the line between those two potential perils. For teachers this manifested itself in lesson observations that generated a huge amount of developmental feedback from the external visitors and Canons co-observers, but which also resulted in Ofsted-style grading that sometimes thrilled and sometimes disappointed. For school leaders this meant sometimes sharing aspects of our work that we could see the reviewers wanted to take back to their school with them, whilst also having to answer tough questions about our assumptions and practices (or not actually get round to answering them as I was accused of on the day). All in all it was simultaneously tough and tender; an interesting combination.

The final challenge for us at Canons is responding to the feedback from the Challenge Partners peer review team. On the one hand we want to savour the fact that they felt that we were confidently outstanding in terms of pupil progress, school improvement strategies and (most crucially, as it represents progress since our last Ofsted), teaching and learning. The fact that they called CanonsOPP a "beautiful model of how teaching and learning should be done" and said both the teaching and the strategies to improve teaching were "amazing" is a testament to the work we have done, and continue to do, as a school. On the other hand we have to now meet the challenges that arise from our positive judgements, especially the agreed belief that we are well on the way to becoming a great school. In particular our English, Science, Drama and Music departments need to swiftly develop their capacity and capability to "strut their stuff on the national stage" (my favourite quote from the lead reviewer). The school also needs to shout increasingly loudly about our model for improving pedagogy, an area of outstanding practice they asked us to put forward for validation.

All of which leads me to one final challenge for any school leader who has made it all the way to the end of this blogpost. I challenge you to heave a close look at the Challenge Partners and take what you find to your next SLT meeting. If you're not a school leader then I also challenge you to send this blogpost you your SLT line manager and ask them if they think Challenge Partners would be right for your school. I make this challenge because I think that this model of schools working together to take responsible for both self-improvement and peer-improvement could be the start of something big; the end of a top-down, Ofsted-and-government-knows-better model of accountability and its replacement with a mature school-centred model of interdependent improvement.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

A Coherent Architecture for Learning

On Thursday 4th October 2012 Canons High School welcomed Alistair Smith (or @alatalite to give him his correct twitter handle) to deliver the keynote speech at our second of five connected whole-staff INSET days. The purpose of this programme is to help the school gear up our Outstanding Pedagogy Project (@CanonsOPP) as we move - hopefully inexorably - towards an outstanding judgment for teaching and learning in the eyes of Ofsted that will validate the strengths we know the school, our staff and students possess. The theme of this particular session was the 'why' of outstanding pedagogy: the raison d'ĂȘtre of CanonsOPP and hopefully, the end of the start of the project.

As I sat listening to Alistair speak I allowed my mind to wander somewhat and I would argue that this is the best compliment I can give to him. When I have to listen hard to a keynote, it is usually because I have to tune in to find common cause with it's key precepts. On the other hand, when I feel that the speaker is completely on my wavelength I tend to hook in to a single concept that latches on to my core beliefs and then let it infuse me. I suppose it's a bit like listening to music that resonates; it transports you and there's usually very little that you can do to stop it. Judging from the conversations that I had with a number of colleagues later that day, I suspect that I wasn't the only one who was transported. And this week I have come across three colleagues who have taken an idea that came from his talk and made it happen in their classrooms (see above). In order to do this I imagine that they must have spent at least some of his speech making mental, or even physical, notes and to-do lists as he was communicating with them. I must remember this when my A-Level students drift away, and hope it is for similar reasons!!!

Anyway, I digress. I wanted to outline the nugget that set me off thinking and it was this. Alistair talked about a "coherent architecture for learning". I knew that this was coming, as he had been in the school a week before to talk with members of SLT and our Pedagogy Leaders about what we wanted from him in his talk. The one word that we thought was most important was the word 'coherent'; the sense that staff, students and their parents would see the links between learning across their different classrooms, subjects and teachers. But as I was listening to Alistair speak I realised that it was the rest of the phrase that struck me most: "an architecture for learning". I became fully aware that we have been engaged in a creative activity in its broadest sense, and that the end result of the process could be either a structure "built on sand" or one designed to last as a result of its solid foundations. We could be creating something to provide "shelter from the storm" for learners or a leaky and breezy shed of a structure. We have it within our collective powers to design a "hideous carbuncle" of a building or a thing of beauty to be admired by its inhabitants and neighbours in equal measure.

In other words that the Canons Pedagogy that we have been working on for three years now is about to leave the world of drafting board, design template and blueprint in order to become a real thing, and that Alistair was here to help us "turn the first sod" or, as the first day of the construction of a new edifice is commonly called, to help us achieve something "groundbreaking". Our aim, through our work as co-architects, has been to create something that is strong, is fit for purpose and is beautiful.

The most fundamental part of our "architecture for learning" is the main reason Alistair was with us in the first place, his Accelerated Learning Cycle which we (our CanonsOPP volunteer teacher group) have worked on for more than a year, have presented with (not to) staff and have built into our new lesson planning mechanism (although we know it is so much more than that). In short, it is the foundations of our pedagogic structure on which all else rests: the aspect of the architecture that provides us with strength. It is not intended to be a straitjacket and has been warmly received by teachers as something that they 'know' is the right thing to do, is strongly related to their practice at its best and puts learning at the heart of teacher planning.

The main thrust of the second half of the day was in getting groups of teachers together in cross-faculty groups to plan a learning cycle on a topic that could be related to subjects or delivered as a PSHCE lesson (I loved working on the 'Legacy of the Olympics' with a Chemistry and a French teacher that ended up being entirely about the political choices involved in spending more than £10 billion pounds). The emphasis was on the process of using the Accelerated Learning Cycle, not on the product of the lesson (or series of lessons) that emerged - although many colleagues liked theirs. The session finished with a peer evaluation of the process that was overwhelmingly positive. Much will remain to be done to keep these foundations strong in order for them to be built upon: the Canons Pedagogy is not a single architectural project after all. But the most positive thing to emerge from the day for me was that although staff were asking for more time and more support to be able to fully implement it, they were adamant that it was the right thing for the school to be doing.
The second part of our Canons Pedagogy, the part that ensures our collective learning is one that is fit for moral, cultural, social and even spiritual (in its broadest sense) purposes are outlined on the slide Alistair delivered shown here. These 'learning themes' are not drawn from the PLTS or BLP or any other pre-packaged learning to learn programme. Instead they are designed to reflect specific Canons contextual issues, linking closely with our school ethos as viewed by our teachers, students and parents. These have been the final piece of the jigsaw to be introduced to teachers and will form the basis of our new hybrid model of professional development that brings together the ideas of Dylan Wiliam's Teacher Learning Communities and David Hargreaves' Joint Practice Development. Teachers will choose their TLC focus and choose their JPD partners in a model that encourages autonomy (thanks Iesha) and interdependence between the incredibly able and focused professionals that populate our staffroom.

The final element of the "architecture for learning" that we call the Canons Pedagogy is the CHS8 of techniques that our Pedagogy Leaders presented on our June INSET day (I have blogged about this elsewhere), and that we will invest time and energy in over the coming years so that they become embedded in a number of classrooms, though not necessarily all as a core tenet of our work is that there is no correct way for teachers to teach. These techniques include some designed to aid areas as diverse as assessment (SOLO taxonomy), group work (Forum Theatre) and home learning (Flipped Classroom), but all are rooted in the principals shown above. Similarly all have been linked to an aspect of the Accelerated Learning Cycle, perhaps a touch arbitrarily but primarily done to ensure a sense of coherence. It is this coherence, ensuring that the fixtures and fittings of learning are in keeping with the structure without putting undue stress on the foundations, that we think ensures that our Canons Pedagogy will be a thing of beauty when it has been fully established.

I have no doubt that this has been one of the least obviously outward-facing blogposts on Canons Broadside, but as our "coherent architecture for learning" has finally fully left the drawing board I wonder whether or not it has a relevance beyond our own four walls. We have no belief that the Canons Pedagogy can act as a blueprint for other schools (unlike the DfE we appreciate that physical and metaphysical architecture needs to be context-specific), but our journey through the stages of the design and building process may well be of interest to others, for our failures as much as for our successes. The challenge I would make of any non-Canons teachers and school leaders reading this is "what does your coherent architecture for learning look like?" And if you can't answer that question maybe, just maybe, it is time for you to go back to the drawing board and begin the process of finding out.