Sunday, 29 September 2013

Another day another league table

After a rocky start, yesterday turned out to be a very, very good day. LSP hosted the Royal Welsh after their march through Bargoed. Our head student Richard Cushion compared proceedings at Hanbury square brilliantly, the entertainment provided by LSP pupils was absolutely fantastic and several dignitaries commented on the generosity and helpfulness of our staff.

However, the day hadn't started so well. The Western Mail had published league tables that morning, supposedly this was in order to provide parents with an insight into how well schools in their area are performing. LSP was placed tenth in a mini league of schools in Caerphilly, as you would expect I was not pleased.

I thought long and hard about blogging about this. Anything written would inevitably be open to accusations of bias or defensiveness or an element of "well he would say that wouldn't he!" Even more importantly I wouldn't want any criticism to be taken as a suggestion that other school's did not deserve a particular position. As a new head teacher I have been incredibly impressed by the collegiate ethos of the Caerphilly head teachers, I know that every school locally works incredibly hard for their pupils and I would wish success for every one of them. Nevertheless I cannot let the Western Mail's article pass without a response, so here it goes!

Let me start by saying that I have no objection to league tables, it is always a good thing to judge yourself against other schools, there is always room for improvement at LSP and as the head teacher I'm always looking for new ideas that will help us do better. However, there are several things that concern me with current developments

  • There now so many ways of judging schools that the outcome can only be confusion. Currently there is family of school data, banding, the Western Mail's league table and on top of that schools are expected to evaluate their own performance against other schools. All of these often use different criteria to decide how well a school is doing. How are parents supposed to understand what are the most relevant or accurate judgements? 
  • League tables like the one in the Western Mail reflect prior performance. (in this case performance in 2012) This is a snapshot of school performance that when published is over a year out of date. The pupil's whose performance it refers to are now studying A' levels in year 13. I'm sure all headteachers would agree that schools can change massively in that period of time. We were very happy with our performance in 2012 but since then we have made huge progress. A league table that reflects our results in 2013 would probably look very different. Would that make me happy? Not at all! It would still only be a snapshot. What matters is the trend in performance for a school over 3 to 5 years, something that is certainly true of LSP.
  • For everyone concerned with LSP league tables are always frustrating because we are being compared to MIXED school. Most people are currently aware of the gap in performance between boys and girls. It is simply a reality that girls far out perform boys particularly in subjects like English. To compare a school that only has boys to a mixed schools is like trying to compare apples and pears, they are simply not the same. Despite the fact that our results often outstrip those for boys in even the most successful schools, the presence of girls means that those schools will usually edge ahead of us in their overall results. If we had a few hundred girls at LSP I'm sure our results would look even better but that's a topic for a different blog!
  • This particular league table also refers to pupil behaviour as way of judging a school's performance. I totally agree. This can be a very useful way to judge how well a school is doing. Although once again there is an issue here for a boys school, exclusion rates for boys far outstrip those for girls. Once again it is impossible to compare a boys school to a mixed school without taking that fact into account. Nevertheless, schools with low exclusion rates tend to have pupils who are more likely to be literate, engaged in innovative lessons and have excellent relationships with teachers. However, the Western Mail uses attendance data to make this judgement? It argues that persistence non-attendance is an indicator of poor behaviour. This could certainly be the case but I would argue persistent non-attendance is far more likely to be caused by severe medical issues, anxiety / depression or profound problems for a pupil at home. These pupils can often be amongst the best behaved in a school!
By about 2 o'clock yesterday I'd begun to calm down. I was, after all, spending a day at a school at the heart of its community. A school that was taking immense pride in hosting an event for soldiers who had sacrificed so much for the wellbeing of our young people. That those young people were actually able to sit down to eat a meal with them seemed particularly poignant. As a result, of all the images I'll remember from that day, the one below will always strike a chord with me.

When I look at this, I know that this group of year 7 pupils will, without doubt, have a future at LSP that will of course include passing exams and improving their literacy and numeracy skills. But perhaps more importantly they will feel safe, they will build life long friendships, they will smile a lot (something not to be under estimated!) and they will know that they are part of a family that values their contribution. 

So bring on the league tables of the future! I have no doubt that they will start to show how much we are growing as a school. Luckily, like any good gardener I can tell the health of the my school just by spending time in it. I don't have to pull up the roots every five minutes to check how its doing!  No league table can ever beat that first hand knowledge and no league table is ever going alter my opinion that the most important things that take place at LSP, just like the meal taking place above, are the things that nobody ever bothers to measure.

Sunday, 22 September 2013

Life begins at 40...

There's nothing like a "big" birthday to make you reflect on your past and even feel a bit nostalgic. Given that my office was full of "happy 40th" banners and balloons on Friday I didn't have much choice! I'm probably getting a bit old for birthday presents but for a Rhondda Fach boy our senior rugby team's rout of Treorchy on Thursday certainly felt like a great gift. I even had a few "mr Chips" moments as I walked around the place, although there are definitely less straw boaters at LSP than in that famous film (see below), so many pupils were wishing me happy birthday on Friday that it felt a bit Hollywood!

I have very fond memories of my own time in school, I think most teachers do, it's probably why we all end up working within the education system. My school, Ferndale Comprehensive, may have been a bit rough and ready around the edges but it was was always very much a community school, you were supported in whatever you chose to do and in return there was always an expectation that you supported others. Relationships between staff and pupils were incredibly strong and although we are all guilty of wearing rose tinted glasses when we look back on the past, I do remember laughing a lot during my time there. 

I'm very proud of the fact that LSP is a school cut from the same cloth. Hearing the "young lions" of year 7 singing Katy Perry's "roar" certainly put a huge grin on everyone's face this week (see below, I think it should become our theme tune!) So did a conversation I had with a year 11 pupil about how we were going to use a "litter picker" to rescue the glasses he had dropped down a drain! Even when there were challenges, we worked to overcome them as team. School, pupil's and parents working together, this is how things should be

Even though LSP has always been this type of school. I realised this week that I have spent nearly half my life (and practically all my adult working life) in this place and in reality much has changed. In assembly this week I had told year 11 that when I started working at LSP I was playing games on a playstation 1, I had a mobile phone the size of a house brick, and perhaps most importantly I had hair. So much has changed since then (and I don't only mean hair loss!) LSP is now a school with cutting edge technology available to pupils, it has support structures that are ever more developed, with learning support assistants, counsellors, health professionals and other agencies working together to support pupils. Most importantly teachers now know what works in the classroom. When I started at LSP 3 out of every 4 pupils did not achieve 5 good GCSE passes, now over 8 out of ten pupils do.

So with so much good going on, what's there left to do? As ever, the answer to this is lots! We still need pupils to work even harder and achieve even more than those that have gone before, particularly with regard to English and maths. We still need to get everyone in this community to recognise what a great school LSP actually is, and to do this we need to constantly sell the message about what LSP is all about. 

In a birthday card I received from a fantastic family member this week there was this quote from John Wesley

“Do all the good you can. By all the means you can. In all the ways you can. In all the places you can. At all the times you can. To all the people you can. As long as ever you can.”

Given that my life is apparently starting again at 40 I think that's a pretty good message to be going on with, Don't you?

Sunday, 8 September 2013

First Week Back - A Family reunited

The first week back at school always seems to fly by so quickly. (I'm sure that's not just the case for new head teachers!). Long summer days seem a distant memory within hours of starting back, and the reality of "getting back into a routine" provides a welcome shock to the system (although I assume teenagers getting up at 7am for the first time in weeks would not agree). Schools are always action packed places but the first week takes this to a whole new level. At any one time this week we have been helping new members of staff settle in (4 new teachers, a new assistant head teacher and a new member of our office), enrolling huge numbers of 6th form students, helping year 11 to complete their Welsh baccalaureate, and most importantly supporting all our new (very excited) year 7 pupils  as they become part of our family.

That word family may not seem the right one to use when talking about a school, but at  LSP that's exactly what it feels like. What always amazes me is that despite all the activity in the first week there always seems time to renew those bonds that hold us together as a community, the only thing you really can compare it to is the biggest family re-union you can imagine. Everyone seems to be bonding!  Teachers are busy re-establishing professional links with colleagues and parents, pupils are busy re-aquainting themselves with friends (for whom 6 weeks off may as well be a lifetime) and most importantly the strong relationships that have always existed between pupils and teachers at LSP are re-established. I've lost count of the amount of times I've asked "how are you" or "did you have a good summer" this week. With the new pupils it's been "I recognise you from your leaver's assembly at primary" or "havent you got a brother / cousin" at school. For me personally I have also been a bit taken a back at the number of students asking if I was ok, congratulating me on becoming head or wishing me luck for the term. I suppose it always makes a sense to get in with the boss!  What is immediately obvious is that these are not just idle conversations. A school absolutely depends on its relationships, we talk about LSP all the time as being a big family, and it really is.

Why this is important is that the strength of our family means we can challenge all our pupils to do even better. I've taken the decision to lead assembly every day. I figure its my job to set the tone for the school, also I want pupils to know who I am and see me as someone they can talk to. This week I've spoken to all pupils about how enormously proud we are about our performance in examinations last summer, added to our successes in music, drama, media or sport we really do have lots to shout about. Even pupils lower down the school benefit from hearing about how well everyone has done and therefore our high expectations for them, also despite this I wanted everyone to know that there is always more to do. With this in mind this week I spoke of the need for all pupils to work even harder, it seems to be getting ever more difficult to achieve academic success and this is not a time to sit back and bask in praise. We particularly want learners to focus on improving their maths and English. We recognise that literacy and numeracy skills are hugely important and we want to do everything we can to improve this

I also talked about the importance of attendance, last year attendance in school was 91.6%, this was better than ever but still needs to improve further. I stressed the importance of punctuality and also discussed the issues of lateness that often stem from pupils getting back to afternoon lessons after going to the bakery for lunch. Add to that  the need to ensure healthy eating at LSP and the additional concerns I have about the very busy road that runs past the school site, then I'm sure it can bee seen why we have decided to allow only years 11,12 and 13 permission to leave the school premises at lunchtime. I would very much hope that parents support this decision and have promised to review the situation throughout the year

Finally I talked about the importance of our image in the community. We are very much aware that other local schools have recently made changes to their uniform including in many cases the introduction of blazers. All the boys looked amazingly smart this week and we talked of the need to keep this up, I've always believed that the way pupils present themselves is tremendously important, it's often a key indicator of whether a community perceives a school as successful. I will be issuing a letter to parents this week as a reminder of our uniform requirements (I'll also publish details on this blog), we will be consulting widely on this issue all year.

Ultimately, why all this matters is because we are constantly looking at ways to make our school the best it can possibly be. We do this because like any family we want everyone to be the the best person they can. Like any good family we praise each other when its deserved, but also we are also prepared to have those difficult conversations where we agree to do something, not because we have to, but because it s the right thing to do. I suppose that some people call that tough love. At Pengam its just a way of showing that you never give up, and isn't that the whole point of being a family?