SSAT National Conference Reflections

SSAT Promotional Artwork On the back of many thought provoking and inspiring talks, I feel both excited and reassured about everything we are doing with regards to learning and teaching at The Duston School. Highlights of the conference were the talks from Dr Russell Quaglia on the achievement gap, Tom Sherrington’s ‘Thinking BIG and small’ and Chris Waugh’s breakout session on his radical approach to teaching English.

I particularly liked Dr Russel Quaglia’s notion that the achievement gap is the symptom of pupil gaps in self worth, engagement, student voice and purpose. He explained that the deficit in these areas is responsible for the gap in achievement. Some stark facts drove this message home with respect to the impact of the four gaps on achievement. Research undertaken into these areas produced a figure in terms of how much greater the achievement of students is if the four areas are addressed. When students have a sense of self worth they are 5 times more likely to achieve; when students believe they have a voice they 7 times more likely to achieve; if lessons are engaging then students are 16 times more likely to achieve and finally, if students have a strong sense of purpose they are 18 times more likely to achieve. Dr Quaglia analysed each of these gaps and gave practical advice with regard to closing the gaps but what struck home were his comments around purpose. He made the point that teachers and adults often say to children ‘what do you want to be when you are older?’ but what we should actually be asking is who do you want to be when you are older? What do you want to motivate you and what do you want your values to be? The overriding message was that these questions show the students that we care and ultimately help to build a sense of purpose. The final point on this was that many of the students who drop out of school or achieve very little are often the students who have little or no sense of purpose.

Tom Sherrington’s talk, whilst nothing revolutionary, was an excellent opportunity to reflect on both the big and the small things when leading learning in our school. I got a very real sense that Tom was deeply involved at all levels of leadership and it was clear that he makes it his business to learn the subject content in whatever area he is supporting to ensure that he is equipped with the knowledge to give meaningful feedback and informed suggestions for improvement.

Tom also reinforced that there is no value in attributing a percentage to the amount of good or better teaching due to the fact that there are too many variables and that learning, by its very nature, cannot be graded in such away. He stressed that it’s enough to identify that there may be concerns about certain teachers but as to quantifying the quality of teaching on the whole, it’s a pointless and inaccurate practice. It has given me reassurance and clarity that what we are now doing with Teacher PLCs is absolutely the right way to evaluate what teachers are good at and what they should be trying to develop. To reference a quotation from Legacy, “the challenge is always to get better. Even when you are at your best, especially when you are at your best.” I am now convinced that the Teacher PLC is the best way to ensure that every teacher adopts a mindset of restless excellence when reflecting on and improving individual elements of their teaching practice.

A final point on Tom, it was abundantly clear that if he wanted to implement and idea or concept in his school that it is followed wholeheartedly. A particular anecdote related to a book which resonated with him. To ensure adequate buy in from staff they bought every member of staff the book. Actions such as this can really help drive an initiative forward.

The most thought provoking session of the conference for me personally was led by Chris Waugh in which he shared his radical values and ethos for teaching English. From the very start, he encouraged anyone to challenge anything he shared which immediately reinforced to me how passionate he is about his subject.

At his school, grades are irrelevant. What is important is that students understand why the different skills are important in everyday life. His philosophy was very much that if their curriculum is delivered in accordance with their values then the grades will take care of themselves. Without going into the nuts and bolts of their system, their curriculum was broken down into a range of tasks in which a student can earn a badge for completing each task. Tasks could be to recite a poem by heart or perform a soliloquy but the important factor was that the students either achieve the badge or they don’t. He made it very clear that the notion of awarding a child a level has no value as it says nothing about what the child can or can’t do.

At his school the children and parents choose which teacher they want for the duration of the year. Each teacher gives a presentation on their vision for the year and then the children and parents make their decision. This idea was met with a fair amount of resistance but he answered all questions in style. His passion and dedication to his cause was infectious and I found his talk thoroughly inspiring.

Speaking for the first time at an education conference was a fantastic opportunity and the feedback received for our session on learning design was overwhelmingly positive with many teachers asking if they could visit The Duston School to see what we do. The message delivered in regards to learning design was very clear. Aspirations should not be limited by preconceptions of what students are capable of. It was reassuring to see that most delegates were moving away from differentiated learning outcomes, which is something which has had a big impact on raising aspirations at The Duston School. The importance of using quick assessment tasks to identity the correct starting points for students was well received and the practical examples shared gave an insight into what they actually look like in everyday teaching. With 50 minute lessons, it is important to establish correct starting points to ensure that no time is wasted. My notion of efficient teaching as an alternative to pace clearly resonated with many of the delegates as for me, the idea of pace suggests that teachers need to move through content rapidly which is absolutely not the case. Instead, teachers should ensure that no time is wasted with students doing tasks covering content that they have already mastered. Reflecting on our session really helped me to crystallise the concept that what is most important to teachers, parents and students is knowing what students can and can’t do as opposed to the attribution of a grade which actually tells us nothing.