W/b 24 April 2023

Monday 24 April 2023

Brilliant teachers are taking our younger pupils away on a series of residential trips, and preparing older students for study leave and examinations.  The syncopated rhythms of a school year are music to my ears because while Covid hasn’t wholly disappeared from our lives, every headteacher (or at least this one) is delighted by all the little, mundane, regular school activities that now take place and that young people were deprived of during peak pandemic years.

This is a week to tie up as many of our outstanding vacancies as possible.  In Senior/Sixth, we need to find great teachers in Food and Nutrition, Biology, Maths, and Psychology, and we also are interviewing for two teachers in Cadogan House.  Maths and Biology are both posts that we tried to fill before Easter without success, but we will get there, and for Psychology we have applicants in this week and next, so fingers crossed.  For Food and Nutrition, however, it is a much smaller pond that schools are fishing in, ever since in 2015-16 the government announced that the study of “Food Technology” and “Home Economics” would be removed as A Level options. 

Food Technology was a brilliant A Level – we offered it at my last school and it was a popular, challenging course, and also distinctly different to the vocational options in this area. Nutrition is complex, the new science of eating is hugely important, and the impact of discontinuing these subjects is significant and under-appreciated. In early 2020, the British Nutrition Foundation (BNF), in partnership with the Food Teachers Centre (FTC), surveyed secondary school food teachers in England to ascertain the impact on students of stopping the two A Levels. An executive summary included the following:

  • There is less food teaching in our schools
  • The removal of A-levels in ‘food’ led to the reduction of food and nutrition education at Key Stage 3 at 1 in 4 schools
  • There is less funding for teaching about ‘food’ at 1 in 4 schools
  • The status of the subject (food) is in decline
  • Staffing remains an issue, in terms of capacity and subject specific knowledge and skills.

In some respects, that summary is saying the same thing in five different ways: stopping the A Level impacted the teaching and learning of food and nutrition this country. Now I do enjoy my food (insert your own joke) but surely I’m not alone in thinking this is far too important a subject area for us to have let happen. While I am not aware of more recent research, I would not expect the situation to have improved since then, and my anecdotal knowledge of other schools suggests Food has continued to spoil, curdle, and rot in many settings since 2020. Ay-Thang-Yaw, as Arthur Askey would say!

At RMS, in addition to all students studying Food through Key Stages 2 and 3, and to it being a very popular GCSE subject here, we are becoming a specialist Leith’s Cookery School. We have a superb Head of Department in Yvonne, a true subject specialist who literally writes the books that exam boards use. However, after a talented colleague had to leave for personal reasons, we have been seeking an additional permanent teacher who is strong enough for what our students deserve. Unfortunately, today’s applicant didn’t have the pedagogy talent we are hoping for from the evidence that we saw in the classroom. This process is one that will run until the end of this term, I fear.

In some good recruiting news, two experienced Early Years specialists who have taught in Ruspini House before now both wish to return to work again with our Head, Vicky Greig. Great Early Years practitioners in nurseries and pre-schools are four-leafed-rocking-horse-teeth, or something, i.e. rare to find because there are so few of them, so this is fab news for our Ruspini pupils. Vicky also talks me through pupil numbers for next year because we are finalising these numbers and linking it all back to our projected budget for 2023-24. It is that time of year in independent schools too!

Tuesday 25 April 2023

I am enjoying teaching a Media unit to Year 8 this half-term. It’s a lovely unit, but it exemplifies just how fast the world is changing because in part we look at newspapers, i.e. tabloids/broadsheets, facts/opinions, etc, including language analysis and semiotic study of media texts because that is what students are assessed on (as they were twenty years ago when I first taught this area for a GCSE English question). However, a quick survey of my class before Easter confirmed that in 2023 most thirteen-year-olds don’t read newspapers or watch TV news; any news they access is through social media such as Tik Tok and Instagram.

Sometimes new media raises awareness of important issues, for example in relation to environmentalism and sustainability, but it perhaps also exposes the pupils more than previous generations to fake news, to more sophisticated media manipulation, and to product promotion through influencers.  I have read that there isn’t yet evidence that this is the case, but I think if we looked a little harder then…y’know?

Anyway, when planning my lessons, I had to smile to myself when I realised we are at a distinct point in history where we are now studying social media, apps, and influencers with schoolchildren, and rightly so, yet with many of the teachers not digital natives but middle-aged 49-year-olds like myself. Suffice to say, I did a fair bit of research, found some great resources to do the heavy lifting, and asked the pupils to help me out a little in this area. I feel that I am learning about this topic with them, which, on occasion, is how some great teaching can work (I tell myself). Next week, we’re covering fake news.

Anne Williams comes in to update me on the We Collaborate conference that RMS are hosting on Saturday 10th June, and to give me the headlines about how her sessions with our middle leaders at RMS are progressing.  We also talk through how we can keep Anne with us at RMS next year as she has been a wonderful addition to our community in so very many ways.  We’ll have a couple of hundred teachers on site on 10th June, all learning together and being energised by one another.  I do enjoy a teachers’ conference.  It will be a glorious day at RMS!

Staffing remains on today’s agenda as I meet first with the boarding team to discuss improving provision for our boarders next year, and then with Sophia, our fab Academic Deputy, and two Heads of School to have a final check that we are where we wish to be with staffing and class sizes for next year.   Emma, our DFO, also meets with me later to discuss pupil numbers against budgets. 

All of this post-Easter number checking matters hugely because typically, around 75% of an independent school’s income is spent on staff salaries, and so every extra staff member that is requested and each pupil fewer can each make a big difference in a business with a marginal surplus such as ours. Independent schools must set budgets and fees ahead of Easter in order to give parents the opportunity to provide a term’s notice if they wish to do so. However, pupil numbers cannot be finalised until after Easter when any parents who wish to have given notice. So Headteachers and DFOs make best plans one side of Easter, agreeing budgets with the Board based on what we know and what past years suggest will most likely happen, and then make final sense of it all the other side of Easter once this year’s human beings actually make their decisions, not always conforming with the algorithm that the data from previous years has generated.

I have on occasion smiled thinking about the strange career route that a head of a large independent school takes. You start off wanting to teach young people, but if you’re half-decent at this then at some point you will be offered the post of Head of Department, and if you make a decent job of that a school might put you forward to be their Academic Deputy until before you know it they’ve got you overseeing a business with a turnover of £20 million and discussing KPIs with the Global Chief Experience Officer at Ipsos while you’re still struggling to teach Year 8 something they don’t already know about social media.

Wednesday 26 April 2023

This week the Whole School Leadership Team meeting involves our Head of Senior School, Rachel, feeding back from a working party that she has been leading which has been reviewing the structure of our school day across RMS. It is early days with this, and of course we are not looking at changing anything before September 2024. The initial Working Party were asked consider ways we might: (i) make best use of time for pupil learning and development, (ii) help to further establish a one-school mind-set across RMS, and (iii) better facilitate the sharing of physical and human resources across our schools as appropriate.

The first point above is partly requiring us address a concern that Senior and Sixth Form pupils and staff have been feeding back for many years, that the gap between 12:50 (when our Period 6 ends) and 2:40 (when our Period 7 commences) is not always used as well as it might be. It is also a prompt to a larger question of “How does a school get the best balance of pastoral, academic, and co-curricular time?” RMS doesn’t do a bad job at all with the later, we’re a truly great holistic school. However, the consistent feedback regarding those middle two hours of the day tells us that it is worth looking at again, from a variety of perspectives. The second and third points that the WP were charged with each touch on the merits of better connecting our Prep School and Senior/Sixth Form because at present there is only one lesson each day that shares the same start and end times, and this places some significant restrictions on our timetabling each year.

Rachel tells us that there is no “best or right answer” to any of this, otherwise every school would do the same thing.  Well, I certainly don’t want that for RMS.  We hear that the Working Party looked across a range of schools before considering three models that might work for RMS in detail, and then dismissing one of these options.  Rachel has shared pros and cons and examples of the other two models with us prior to today’s discussion.  The group has also sought feedback from a wider range of staff on the benefits and drawbacks of moving to a one-hour lesson length. 

There is then a pretty good, open-minded discussion of the two models, however one of these models (a nifty, radical proposal that involves varying lessons in 15 minute blocks, i.e. some 30, some 45, some 60, some 75) excites but ultimately is not felt by this group to be able to address one of our key principles of allowing for more efficient sharing of resources across the school.

The other model would involve a move to six one-hour blocks. We currently have 4 blocks of 75 minutes, plus 60 minutes of “pastoral time” each day.  It’s 30 hours of overall pastoral and academic contact time either way.  There are inevitably advantages and losses from this (and every) model, and its interesting to weigh them up against the best of what we have.  The group are happy for Rachel to take it out for wider consultation across the school giving all staff the chance to feedback, but decide that we would like there to be two versions of this general model, one just as it has been presented to us, and the other with a longer lunch (as we have now).  I am pleased that the group recognises that we must ensure enough time for (sporting) co-curricular clubs that take place over the lunch break.  We are a truly great holistic school, and any possible new model must not threaten the conditions that allow every pupil here to thrive.

There is more I could discuss here, but of course we will wish to hear the thoughts of colleagues, parents, and pupils on this issue.  It is a topic that will recur over the coming months, and I shall keep my powder dry for the time being.

We interview a head of a local prep school as a potential new governor.  He will be a great addition, just what we need, and a recommendation is sent to the wider Board.  The day ends with a MF&D Committee (Marketing, Fundraising, and Development).  It’s only our second meeting of this group, and our first with the new Head of Marketing and Admissions, Emma, who impresses the Chair of the Sub-Committee (and me). In meeting two we make the very important decision that it needs a name change to Marketing, Admissions and Development, (because names are important) but once we get onto weightier matters and Emma gets the true measure of our School, this group is going to be a very good thing for RMS, I believe.

Thursday 27 April 2023

I join the Senior and Sixth Form SLT this morning.  Now, it is not normally like this when I have attended, but in truth today it’s a slightly chaotic affair.  It was probably trying to bite off more than any one meeting could chew in an hour.  I stay a short while to gauge what I think is happening, and then decide to leave them to it, worried that by my mere presence I am doing more harm than good in the context of today’s meeting!  I don’t think too much of this – we’ve all had a meeting that hasn’t been prepared or teed-up as well as it might have been (or at least I have).  I speak with Rachel and Clare in the days that follow to get their take on why it got to where it did. No biggie.  The SLT are wonderful in very many ways, but they are human too.  We move on.

One of the lovely things about RMS is that there is a room were staff can enjoy their lunch together that is adjacent to the main Dining Hall. I haven’t enjoyed this experience in my previous schools; we always ate in the same room as pupils, just on separate tables. RMS staff enjoy having a bit of peace to enjoy 10-15 minutes of pleasant conversation with colleagues from a range of areas across school – it is a very good thing. I don’t get down there every day as sometimes the lunch hour is needed to meet people, but this school year I have got in there at least a couple of times every week, and I do appreciate the chance to hear about colleagues’ lives inside or outside school. As with school trips and examinations, perhaps it took Covid and the enforced loss of such collegiality to better make me appreciate how important a civilised lunch together is for us all.

In the afternoon I observe Biology lessons, and in the wash-up afterwards we all feel that we have a teacher that we can appoint at RMS. The applicant accepts our offer, which is wonderful, and Melanie tells me she has appointed two new colleagues in Cadogan House – let’s keep the strong teachers coming!

Friday 28 April 2023

I meet with our Head of Learning Support, Claire Hawkins. Claire is an experienced SENCO and leader in this area, who fulfilled the role very successfully in the maintained sector for a number of years before joining RMS. Her challenge when starting here was replacing a colleague who by her own admission went (far) beyond the bounds of what could be expected of a dedicated professional in her particular care and support for a small number of students and families. Expectations when Claire arrived were not realistic among some of our parents. Ann was truly fabulous, as is Claire, but Claire has to be allowed to be Claire and not Ann! Our meeting is a brief, productive one that prepares the ground for two or three discussions to follow about PALS provision at RMS.

I observe a number of Maths teachers today, and the HoD and I both agree that we have two great, appointable applicants. We are on an appointing roll. It’s a no from the Psychology observations today as they’re just not right for us, but we have high hopes for the applicant who is in early next week. We sign up three great teachers on the phone, and I consider that an acceptable day’s work for a Friday because there isn’t much that is more important than appointing great teachers and keeping the great ones that we already have here happy and committed to self-improvement.

It’s a long Bank Holiday weekend for most, and a long, working weekend for our brilliant boarding team. They are taking the students to Windsor tomorrow, to soak up something of the pre-Coronation atmosphere. The week ends with us having finished our recruiting in Ruspini House, Cadogan House, Science, and Mathematics. And if anybody knows a great teacher of Food and Nutrition that is seeking a school where the subject is truly, truly scrumptious valued, then do please point them my way.

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