Saturday, 12 May 2018

The Launch of the Midlands Knowledge Schools Hub

This week I have been privileged to spend quite a bit of time at St Martin's Catholic Academy in Stoke Golding, a village near the border of Leicestershire and Warwickshire. Eagle-eyed readers of education news and commentary will have come across this school before - it has been praised by people like Minister for State Nick Gibb and others for its rigorous focus on an academic curriculum for all pupils. This week St Martin's officially launched the Midlands Knowledge Schools Hub to support other schools in the midlands to make the journey towards a knowledge rich curriculum. As headteacher Clive Wright says "It would be easy to take pupils from an affluent area like Stoke Golding and just work with them, but that does not fit with our moral imperative as a Catholic school" (I paraphrase).

This week the Midlands Knowledge Schools Hub had two events to mark its inception, and official launch on Thursday, and then an inaugural conference today. I was pleased to be invited by Clive to attend the launch on Thursday, which featured inspiring speeches both by Nick Gibb (never thought I would hear myself say that!) and by Stuart Lock, Executive Principal of Advantage Schools. Nick spoke eloquently of the importance of knowledge, particularly the role of knowledge in tackling social justice and improving social mobility by making sure that young people from all backgrounds learn about "the best that has been thought and said". Stuart followed this with an equally impassioned speech about ensuring young people can "join the conversation of the educated citizens". This was certainly a fitting start to the Hub, but as is often true of the launch event it was more about ceremony than substance - the substance being left to today.

The conference today was attended by more than 180 people, a testament to the interest in this movement and what it has to offer. The day was mainly structured as a series of panel interviews/debates designed to explore the different facets of a knowledge rich school. The first debate examined the rationale for knowledge rich schools, and featured Helena Brothwell, Principal at Queen Elizabeth's Academy in Mansfield; Jon Brunskill, a teacher at an all-through school in London; Ros McCullen, Executive Principal of Midlands Academies Trust; and Robert Peal, Assistant Head in charge of Teaching and Learning at West London Free School. Much of this panel echoed the messages from the launch; the importance of a high level of academic knowledge to open opportunities for the future, as well as knowledge being the end in itself and that actually learning new things is something to enjoy. Jon summed it up nicely with the line "Lessons should be joyful, but what makes it joyful should be the content."

After a short break, the new panel consisting of the aforementioned Stuart Lock; along with Ben Newmark, a Head of Humanities in Rugby; Loraine Lynch-Kelly, Deputy Head at St Martins and co-founder of the Hub; and Alex Pethick, Deputy Head Teacher at West London Free Schools looked at "The How" of setting up a knowledge rich school. Props have to be given to Alex in particular for taking time out of her hen weekend to sit on the panel. It was Ben that set the scene here, talking about the orthodoxy of the last 20 years or more of education focusing on the teaching of 'transferable skills' and PLTs. Many teachers, Ben says, were led to feel guilty when actually teaching pupils, instead being praised for group work, discussion based tasks etc. and made to feel that they had to jump through hoops for lesson observations by doing things that actually had no impact on pupils' long term learning. Stuart spoke of the need to "play the long game" when it comes to curriculum, taking the time to work on it, refine it, and really have detailed discussions about "what" to teach as this would drive the "how" (i.e. the pedagogy and assessment). We were warned about treating knowledge rich curricula as a fad; if schools start saying "We use knowledge organisers so we are now a knowledge rich school" then this really important idea will simply go the way of other fads in education. Alex was able provide an invaluable primary perspective, talking about how to manage the teaching of a knowledge rich curriculum with primary staff who have to teach across the range of subjects, and Loraine added useful insights from St Martins own journey over the last 18 months or so.

After lunch, Ann Donaghy (Vice Principal at Nuneaton Academy) spoke about her personal journey to a knowledge based curriculum. To me, and many others, this was the highlight of the conference. Ann spoke with such passion about the growth in her practice, from her early years of being told to insert card sorts, group work, hot seating etc by those she trusted to know what worked in the classroom; and feeling like she had to ignore the advice and guidance of a maths teacher called Pete (you should always listen to maths teachers called Pete! 😉) when he tried to focus her attention on 'what' she was teaching and expecting kids to learn. This continued right up to taking her post as VP at Nuneaton Academy, with the early focus of their transformation of this once failing school on a well known teacher enhancement program, along with behaviour. Ann admitted that this did show some improvements, but the masses of triple marking, differentiated planning etc. led to a huge increase in teacher workload which started to burn teachers out. At the same time, whilst the school was a more pleasant environment, this didn't translate into much improved outcomes for pupils. Ann and the Principal, Simon Lomax, realised that they needed to change the focus of the school and its staff to the curriculum itself, and have started down the journey this year. Although too early to have externally validated data, Ann informs us that the signs look promising. Staggeringly, the latest tracking data shows disadvantaged pupils outperforming non-disadvantaged pupils across the board. Ann definitely had the lines of the day with quotes such as "we are no changing lives by delivering an unapologetically rigourous and academic curriculum" and "pupils shouldn't just have access to the same depth of knowledge as the best private schools in the country, they are entitled to it. It is their absolute right!" Ben Newmark had visited the school back in March and had these excellent words to say about it: I had a brief stint of teaching at the Nuneaton Academy during some of its darkest times and I am really pleased that my old line manager Simon Lomax and his excellent team have managed to turn this school around and deliver the education that those pupils deserve.

The final session of the day was definitely the liveliest debate, with Lee Donaghy (husband of Ann and teacher in his own right), Jane Manzone (perhaps better known as @HeyMissSmith on twitter), Calvin Robinson and the indefatigable Andrew Old discussing whether behaviour or curriculum was the first thing to focus on. This was probably the first debate with real differences of opinion, particularly with Jane challenging the ideas that the high level of academic knowledge was the best pathway for some pupils and whether this would lead to increased social mobility for those pupils that will not make use of it once they leave school. Most panelists agreed that behaviour had to come before curriculum, however it was Andrew for me who hit the nail on the head. Andrew spoke about the necessary intertwining of behaviour with curriculum - with good learning behaviours being necessary for curriculum study, whilst the curriculum sets the behavioural expectations needed to access it. Whilst the topic was supposed to be behaviour and curriculum, the Chair Harry Yorke (Daily Telegraph political (and former education) correspondent) also prompted the panel to explore controversies such as the recent news for funding grammar expansion. I must admit to being dismayed that money is being made available for grammars to expand when people are working so hard to bring into all schools the sort of rigorous academic curriculum and extra-curricular enrichment that grammars are known for. The panel eventually returned to behaviour with a discussion on exclusions and the "zero-tolerance" behaviour policy. Again it was Andrew that stole the show; his commentary on the rise of exclusions being attributed to the changes that meant that schools didn't face the same obstructions to exclusions and his points about those reacting to the rise in knife crime by saying "they should never have been excluded from school" (because then it is only the teachers and their fellow pupils at risk!) having the audience in fits of laughter.

I found the day to be very useful and enjoyable. There is still plenty of the nitty-gritty of what different knowledge rich curricula actually look like both on paper and in the classroom, and I am hoping to visit some of the schools and trusts leading the way on this in the near future. In the meantime I am looking forward to the impact that the Midlands Knowledge Schools Hub can have on my local education landscape, and would like to offer my congratulations to Clive Wright and Loraine Lynch-Kelly along with all of their team at St Martins, well supported by people like Mark Lehain at Parents and Teachers for Excellence on a successful launch.

No comments:

Post a Comment