Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Oracy Post 1 ‘Good enough’

On Wednesday 6th July I travelled to London to attend two days of training with School21 for their Voice21 EEF Research pilot, which is not an impact trial, but rather a character grant funded exploration of the promise that their Oracy curriculum has on students’ confidence and assessing whether this can be replicated nationally.  

The training absolutely lived up to our expectations and properly ignited our sense of purpose whilst equipping us with a rich curriculum tool kit to work through in our own school.  The research project has three areas of focus which are:
  • Whole School Culture
  • Assemblies
  • Oracy Curriculum: cross curricular developments and a discrete one hour lesson for year 7 students once a week

There are so many things that I want to reflect on and write about over the forth coming year, but I want to reflect first on the sense of purpose that was instilled in me, which is very much part of the School21 & Voice21 mission.  I have thought about this session deeply and repeatedly since the training.

We were exploring the tool of HARKNESS DEBATE and the protocols that School21 has developed with this style of debate, but as with almost everything I experienced in the school the process worked on many levels.  We were randomly divided into groups, given this talking point and happily my group was removed to the Harkness room first:

‘Is England’s education system fit for purpose?’

I had been asked to function as scribe for the debate but was allowed to contribute as desired – the act of scribing curtailed my contributions but added to my enjoyment of the debate as I had to follow others’ thoughts well.  The role developed my listening skills within the process and was thoroughly rewarding.  We were given two minutes thinking time and then the moderator (acting somewhat like a chair but without the need for hierarchy) opened the debate.

Initial ideas contributed asked questions about the contention and probed into the participants’ experiences – Does it depend on where you teach? Privilege and those ‘left behind’ came up almost immediately and then a Canadian teacher, Lil, piped up.  It is her words and the gear shift they provoked in the conversation that has stayed with me – like a silver bullet through my professional heart.  I will have to paraphrase what she said and apologise for the chasm between her soft Canadian insightful calm and my words here. 

Lil started by explaining how teaching is a highly respected and sought after career in Canada and how  many graduates have to teach abroad to get the experience necessary to be employed in Canada where competition is fierce.  She explained that internationally teaching in England is known as the ‘trenches’ and has a fearful reputation. International recruitment consultants are clear in their message that to teach in England you need ‘guts’.  Whilst we were revelling in this and enjoying some good old fashioned Dunkirk spirit from the trenches, Lil rapidly moved on and I can quote her directly here:

“The system is classist... apathetic kids are a result of the message that they are ‘not good enough’.”

Lil continued and brassily concluded that this message is reinforced by the setting of classes.  She asked us to consider what the message of being 7th or 8th in 8 sets actually conveyed to the students in those classes? What it showed the students about their value to the school?

The debate raged on to consider: what our purpose is in education? Whether our purpose was to maintain the status quo or to change it? What is ‘fit’ for students? What do they need? Is the exam focus helpful? We touched on the role of government and the need to remove politics from the education system.  We talked as professionals and parents and ourselves; it was engaging, dynamic and exciting.  Each point stimulated and developed the next.

Then, Lil spoke up again and again her words must have been concise because I have them captured in speech marks;

“It’s not just failing students, it’s failing professionals.”

She spoke of professionals who consistently received the message that whatever they do is “never enough”.  She asked us to consider whether not being academic was a crime? And further to that, what the recruitment of teachers without qualifications said about the system?  I am re reading notes to write this and can feel these words echoing again.


Her truths that stay with me are that the school system tells the most vulnerable in society that they are not ‘good enough’.  That that same system tells the professionals within it that they are ‘not good enough’ too.  That much of the behaviour we witness from students and professionals are a response to this message. 

Stop the message and it follows that you will, to some degree, stop the behaviour.

As a graduate of top sets throughout my own education and as an option subject teacher who has always taught mixed ability sets, I find myself really questioning setting.  When I read through my notes across all the participants of the debate I find echoes of what Lil was saying in almost all of the comments, yet no native teacher had the balls to assert it so boldly.  

I have lost count of the times that I have been wearily climbing into my car after 12+ hour day only to hear a politician assert that teachers are ‘coasting’.  There is a mass exodus from our profession which is provoking policies where training as a teacher is now seen as inessential.  A policy which affirms the original catalyst for the exodus; we’re never good enough, so why bother?

We know the impact of the message as professionals and yet we compound it for our students.

Bottom sets continue. 

Setting has been shown to have little impact on attainment and whilst primary schools are beginning to grapple with this through consistently teaching in mixed ability groups, most secondary stage education providers shrink in horror if you mention this.  Setting is seen as a necessary evil.  A change from which would provoke more problems than it would solve, and yet many subjects within that school will be taught to GCSE and beyond in mixed ability groups.

I completed NPQSL this year. A course which opened with the instruction to QUESTION EVERYTHING – Setting is now at the top of my list.  The students I taught this year achieved a 100% A* - C pass rate in a mixed ability class. It can work, if we want to make it work and if we don’t, then I think we need to question that too.

Everyone deserves to feel 'good enough' in school.

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