Today saw the inaugural Northern Rocks event in Leeds and although I will be the first to admit that amongst the pressures of exam season it snuck upon us out of the blue, my excitement for the event this morning was palpable.
The event kicked off with a Question Time style panel with an illustrious guest list who exchanged opinions, facts and, occasionally, blows with enthusiasm and honesty and it was an excellent opening to the day’s proceedings. Dominic Cummings was the main antagonist but he was ably engaged with by Kev Courtney (NUT) and MP Ian Mearns. The two journalists were fairly bland in their offerings and Mick Waters provided sufficient wit and wisdom that I intend on re-visiting his book in the not too distant future having been underwhelmed the first time round. The session provided food for though on the impact that PRP is having across the education landscape as well as an eye opener into the challenges ahead for the profession to gain any consensus as to our core purpose and where real challenges lie. Despite a panel of heavyweights, the event’s matriarch, Debra Kidd, chaired the panel skilfully and without fear or favour.
Workshop One I went to see Dave Whittaker, a colleague who I have had the fortune to have as my NPQH mentor and that remains firmly one of the wisest decisions I have made. Dave gave a 45 minute tour de force to whet anybody’s appetite for beliefs around behaviour management in a session entitled ” Do Sanctions Work?” It was a real pleasure to hear his perspective on a question we wrestle with on a regular basis. Dave is the epitome of a professional who can talk the talk as well as walk the walk and he provided powerful messages, challenging questions and a tweak to the moral compass of anyone who was listening. The only regret being that there wasn’t enough time for questions or discussion.
Workshop Two was run by Tom Sherrington who focussed on how to become a research engaged learning community. Tom started by examining the universally key ingredient i.e. what makes a great teacher and gave a whistle-stop tour of his excellent blog series on great lessons. He went on to talk about intelligent accountability and this gave me the first of what would be a series of roller coaster emotions for the day. I believe that at TLC we have developed an intelligent accountability structure underpinned by my explicit understanding around every member of staff. I know and understand the strengths, weaknesses, learning journey, CPD record and willingness to develop for every member of staff and this has been the bedrock on which we have built staff development over the last two years. However, come September, I will be moving back to mainstream and will be starting again. How will I be able to develop such a thorough understanding in such a big setting? Will it even be my role when I move back to deputy head? These are questions I need to wrestle with in my first few weeks. Tom also talked about developing a professional learning culture and, although I reflected with some pride on how far we have come in this respect, and while I was pleased with how many common features TLC North shared with KEGS, there was also plenty to take away. In honesty, there was also some frustration at how this year’s uncertainty & changes has led to the stalling of last year’s excellent work.
A theme that ran throughout Tom’s session, which for me summed up the sensible and engaging theme of the day, was the symbiosis between traditional and progressive pedagogy and Tom spoke very elegantly around this. Being a frequent reader of Tom’s blogs, the real learning for me within his session was around the specifics of engaging with action research. This further contributed to my roller coaster of emotions as i become excited and optimistic about the opportunities my new post will present in this regard.
It is tradition in my school to report back on the quality of lunch at any external events so I will just add a quick paragraph to acknowledge that lunch was reasonable quality, of excellent size and incredibly good value so catering receives a very reasonable 7/10. The facilities are also significantly better than in my day at LMU which is just as well or my waistline would not have survived Uni.
I had a last minute change of heart for workshop 3 and chose to go and see Tait Cole’s presentation on challenging inequality through education. Tait is clearly a very broadly read man who doesn’t subscribe to the traditional orthodoxies around education and I went in hoping to have my thinking challenged and challenged it was. Throughout, Tait kept reminding us that we determine our moral purpose and ultimately that should be to give our young people the skills and the knowledge to think freely, critically and constructively so they are equipped to secure their own destinies.
I took away two big things from this. Firstly, it re-enforced to me that I will face personal challenges upon my return to mainstream. I am joining a school with a very traditional behaviour policy and incredibly high expectations of the students in terms of rules that could be considered conformist and promoting subservience. I have some real thinking to do about how I am going to set the behaviour policy in my new school to ensure that it not only underpins world class learning and supports staff in becoming the best teachers they can, but also ensures that all our young people become thoughtful, independent, effective citizens.
Secondly, as Tate talked about the principles of Punk Learning, and the necessity of supporting genuine student led learning, the need for agile teaching responding to student needs and interests, and the emphasis on truly creative solutions to learning problems, I couldn’t help but reflect on how much mainstream schools could learn from great PRUs and Special schools. Engagement, responding to need and breaking down barriers is our bread and butter. Agility and flexibility are our middle names. I believe that there has never been a better time to recruit to the special and alternative provision sectors due to the exodus of teaching colleagues looking to escape the uniform approach of some MATs and academies and this gave me some real food for thought around the underlying reasons and how I can uphold my core pedagogy values in going back to mainstream.
Finally, Workshop Four was John Tomsett. John firmly falls into the category of Head-teachers I think I would love to work for. Intelligent, compassionate, engaged and with an exceptionally strong moral compass. His session was based on why Heads and senior leaders should be the best teachers on the block and he talked heavily about the influence of Deming’s principles in developing a culture of quality, productivity and effectiveness. As would seem to be John Tomsett’s way, when these principles are combined with experience, compassion and humility, it makes for an enticing and exciting school culture with learning at it’s heart.
My roller-coaster of emotions pretty much peaked throughout this session. I began to feel huge waves of sadness that I will soon be moving away from the school I have helped to build and the team I am privileged to lead. I reflected on the culture we have begun to develop and how we are a million miles ahead of where we were, but it may not yet be truly embedded. Similarly, the notion of “sustained human learning”, which was consistent throughout the presentation, has been at the heart of my work at TLC North. We have relaunched and reinvigorated CPD on a number of occasions and every time it has become increasingly personalised and staff-driven. Again, I felt a wave of sadness about moving away from this and the colleagues I have seen grow and thrive through these systems.
John also showed a number of IRIS clips of his teaching and talked about CPD model within his school which focuses on video lessons, coaching and, often, marginal gains. It was fascinating viewing and my momentary sadness was replaced by waves of excitement about the opportunities my new school will present and the journey we have ahead of us.
The conference then reconvened in the sports hall and we were treated to a two man show from Mick Waters and the irrepressible Hywel Roberts. Amongst the humour, poetry, music and props there were some incredibly wise words and deep questions. None more poignant for me that “what will be your legacy?”. Then, surreally, and completely out of the blue, we were treated to a truly outstanding aria from Rachel Orr which was well and truly ORRsome and was an incredibly fitting end to what was an awesome day. Around this time I think my hay-fever must have kicked in as I had a tear in my eye at such a spectacular finale.
The sign of a great day is when, half way through, you are reluctant for it to end and find yourself already contemplating whether there will be another next year. There were twenty four genuinely high quality speakers, no political agenda, no overwhelming ideologies and what felt like a real shared purpose. The weather did what it often does Opp North and absolutely belted it down but that did nothing to dampen the spirits or optimism of the delegates who all left with a real spring in their step. Debra Kidd and Emma Hardy, it was great, your were great and I really hope you do it all again.