How to Choose a School

A Handy Guide for Parents

Its that time of year again when Social Media explodes with posts from parents asking for recommendations for schools, followed by 126 completely contrasting comments, muddying the waters further. To some extent parents need to be cautious when seeking advice from strangers and rely more on their own instinct. Choosing a school for your child is a huge responsibility, but knowing what to look for can take the stress out, even if in these bizarre times you are not able to visit a school in person.

The Good Schools Guide offers some advice to start with ‘Factors you might want to consider include strong test results, good value added (a measure of how well children progress throughout their school journey), a good range of extra curricular activities, strong pastoral care, a particular ethnic and social mix, the size of the school, faith or non faith, wrap-around care, and the amount and quality of outdoor space.’ But ultimately it is a feeling do you like a smaller rural school or a bigger school with more extra-curricular opportunities?

Cutting through the Data

Schools these days are very data rich, all the information you need is at the touch of a fingertip, the schools Ofsted report is always a good place to start, be cautious though, check the date of the report as these can often be quite a few years old and the character of a school can change dramatically following a good or bad inspection, teachers could change and there could be mitigating factors behind the data.

Visiting Schools

It will be interesting to see how individual schools decide to run their Open Evening this year. traditionally parents have the opportunity to walk round schools and get a feel for the prospective school, but this year this will not be possible. The challenge for schools will be to try to give parents as much of a feel for the school environment, but remember it is a competitive market so be cautious when watching promotional videos or listening to speeches. Keeping this in mind here are some tips.

  • Is the Open Evening itself and the surrounding events well run?
  • Is there an opportunity for Questions?
  • Are children used to give their own perspective?
  • Does the school look well looked after, e.g. is the paintwork fresh?
  • Is the work on display well presented, with a range of abilities represented? 
  • What are your impressions of the head?
  • What evidence is there of how the school caters for special educational needs and gifted and talented children?
  • What sort of extra-curricular activities are offered?
  • What is the school’s ethos? 
  • What’s your impression of the general atmosphere?

If there are opportunities to talk to teachers, or alternatively to trusted friends with children already at the school, you may want to consider the following questions.

  • How big are the classes?
  • How many classroom assistants are there?
  • Are children taught in sets? If so, can children move sets easily if necessary?
  • How are gifted children extended and challenged?
  • How are children with additional needs helped?
  • How do they communicate with parents if there is a problem?
  • How often are supply teachers used?
  • Is there much staff turnover?
  • Would they send their own child to the school?

From personal experience, we know that all the schools in our area are of a good quality, with strong reputations across the board. Unusually we have three tier system therefore there are three points at which parents have to make decisions. For us locality was the major factor living within a community not only do we like to support our local schools, but also logistically having a school nearby was critical.

Choosing a school is a challenge in itself; choosing a school in these unprecedented times magnifies this further. As with most major decisions in your life, remember to take all the advice you can, but your decision needs to be the right one for your family. Good luck.

SEND Education in a Pandemic

The Independent Provider of Special Education Advice (IPSEA) have updated their advice on how the Covid-19 measures will affect pupils with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) and it makes for quite interesting reading, with valuable advice for parents and schools alike

The headlines re-iterate that whilst schools have been issued with fresh advice for the re-opening schools actually the advice for SEND pupils remains as per the SEN and Disability Code of Practice 2015 and any changes in internal behaviour policies have to comply with the 2010 Equality Act, so far no changes.

However where the complications arise for both staff and students is the advice given for those of you like me, who were shielding during the first wave of the pandemic. The official advice from Government is that the 1996 Education Act still applies, in that regular attendance is expected, however a minor caveat that any students who are unable to attend school due to public health or clinical advice will not be penalised. However it is critical to add that Doctors advice is important here as the general expectation is that even for the most vulnerable currently school attendance is expected. It is unclear in the guidance as to the expectations if a family member or someone in the household are shielding themselves. IPSEA advice is that settings should authorise absence, but this is not in the Government guidance.

IPSEA advice continues “Where pupils need to self-isolate, or there is a local lockdown requiring pupils to remain at home, the school will offer immediate, high-quality remote education and will have planned for what this will be.  Schools will need to offer paper materials where access to online learning is not available. For pupils with SEND, the guidance states that schools should work with parents where the pupil can’t access learning without adult support to develop “a broad and ambitious curriculum”.  Therefore, schools might need to think of bespoke and creative ways to support children with SEND remotely. The duty to secure the provision in the EHC plan under s.42 Children & Families Act 2014 continues under the tier system.” 

The issue with all of this is of course in relation to the catch up process. Children have missed approximately 6 months of school with the impact of this not really known. For pupils with SEND we expect this will be even more keenly felt. The National Tutoring Programme has been set up by the Department for Education and Castle Tutoring have made ourselves available to schools to support this as either an Academic Mentor for subject specific tuition or as a Tuition Partner for face to face, online or combination teaching. For pupils with SEND it is blatantly obvious that there will be a need for extra provision to support and in this instance extra EHC support may be required as per the CAFA 214 process.

IPSEA advice suggests that for those with an Educational Healthcare Plan (EHC), there are two options if a child chooses to remain at home for whatever reason; elective home education or education otherwise than that in a setting. For those without an EHC in place the only option available is elective home education.

Either way there is a potential crisis, which will be exacerbated should there be a second wave and either a localised or national lockdown, my view is that in this scenario the Government will resist closing schools again until the last possible moment, but that s purely conjecture. My advice for those with SEND is to read the guidance provided by IPSEA and remember Castle Tutoring is available to help support any catch up plans or home schooling needs.

https://www.ipsea.org.uk/news/ipsea-update-on-covid-19-school-closures-and-sen-provision

The Future of Learning is Here

The Covid-19 pandemic has completely changed the face of education and no-one is quite sure what is going to happen next, but crises have a habit of changing deeply entrenched working practices. As I write this DJ Chris Evans is on the radio asking the question “children are at school for 25% of their lives, but do the children receive 25% of the benefits?”. In other words does the way we teach prepare our students for their future lives? It is generally accepted that the jobs our young people will go into probably have not even been invented yet, so is it possible to prepare them for the real world?. The way that we teach would be recognisable to the Victorians and yet the world in which we live in would not be. Children attend classes, complete copious amounts of exercise books, use textbooks and are then assessed in written examinations.

In the past few years there has been a move away from the is model, the company Future Learn (www.futurelearn.com) and the Khan Academy (www.khanacademy.org) are innovators in ‘Massive Open Online Courses’ or MOOCS, which are free online courses on literally thousands of topics. I always recommend sixth form students complete a MOOC as demonstration of their commitment to a subject ahead of a UCAS application. In the UK private schools have been much more successful in transitioning to online lessons, the Sutton Trust found that private school educated children were twice as likely to receive online lessons than state school educated pupils. It seems that access to resources has widened the gap, yet in the long run online education could be harnessed to level up especially as smart devices become more affordable and ubiquitous, which means online lessons are more accessible. Online lessons are likely to support teachers rather than replace them, we are all very familiar with programs such as Active Learn and My Maths, this frees the teacher up to teach core skills in the classroom, along with other fundamental skills such as health and wellbeing, socialisation and social care, with content covered in a flipped learning model at home, accessed via a medium which the 21st century student is comfortable with.

Online learning is here to stay, according to surveys most of us in the UK would love to see more emphasis on the digital delivery of lessons, the pandemic has changed the way education is viewed, now is the time to really prepare our future captains of industry, equipped to develop digital skills such as virtual collaboration, communication, analysing data or managing remote teams. It’s high time for change.

Practical Tips to support children with online learning

1 – Create a learning environment and limit distractions. Make sure there is quiet, clutter free areas and encourage concentration, no one has ever learnt whilst wearing earphones or listening to music despite the protestations.

2 – Mix it up. Online learning should be in conjunction with offline activities. Get out and about away from the study space. Encourage Physical Exercise and extra-curricular activity to help support emotional well-being. Brain breaks allow the brain to focus on something else and reduces fatigue, keep the activities short, sharp and focused.

4 – Keep an open dialogue with your childs teacher to check on progress and highlight any challenges faced.

5 – Stick to a routine, set times for you to be available for them and review what they have learnt together.

6 – Keep them motivated, help your child believe they can make progress and be positive. Greater motivation improves focus as does a healthy and balanced diet.

Making Music in the “new normal”.

By Head of Music, Iain Ross

Thanks to Kelly Sikkema for sharing their work on Unsplash.

This is the  time of year when you reflect on the successes in results day, and what was achieved in the last academic year. From that, you start planning how you might make even more music with the resources you have, and ensuring that music stays as high on the school’s agenda as possible.  It’s very different this year. Exams were cancelled, school shows cancelled, and music rooms silenced due to the school closure. I’ve missed teaching. I’ve missed the students. I’ve missed sharing my love and passion for a subject that’s inclusive, challenging and rewarding, and seeing students flourishing and breaking down personal barriers to succeed in the subject.  I can’t wait to see them again next week. 

These are extraordinary times.  The coronavirus pandemic has presented heads of music in secondary schools with challenges that we’d thought we would never have to face – how on earth can we make music in schools in a socially distant world?  As Head of Music at a large secondary school in Slough, this has caused some considerable anxiety. It’s a nightmare. How will it be possible to teach a subject that demands so much practical pedagogy be taught under such challenging conditions?  

Allow me to indulge in some of the challenges presented by the recent government guidance released on Friday 29th August: 

  • Singing is only permitted in well-ventilated rooms with no more than 15 students socially distant at two metres. This is not possible at our school so we will not be singing at all. 
  • Musical instruments cannot be shared between bubbles. This will mean adapting long term plans so that schemes of work requiring similar equipment are taught first. 
  • No extra curricular groups with mixed year groups. 

In addition to this, our school has adopted the zones and bubbles guidance whereby teachers will go to the students, rather than the contrary under normal circumstances.  This has effectively meant that the music department is evicted from its base and become mobile.  This means that music will be taught in Science Labs, Food Tech rooms etc. How tolerant will colleagues in neighbouring classroom be of any practical work? 

We must also consider the students. Colleagues won’t know how far ‘behind’ students are until they are sat in front of us in the first lesson. Every student has had a very different experience of lockdown, with some having supportive parents with outstanding homeschooling capabilities, what others will have become disengaged with their learning, with perhaps little or no access to IT resources. This is nothing new to music departments with some students studying musical theory and instruments outside of the classroom, but this will be a completely new challenge.  “We’re all in the same storm but not in the same boat” is a fantastic quote for planning for this.  

This is without doubt the biggest challenge of my 12 years in the teaching profession. Social distancing has meant that large parts of my teaching pedagogy arsenal are null and void for he foreseeable future, so adapting to this will be a daily challenge. The instruction from senior leaders to “front load your curriculum with theory” is all well and good, but it will require a huge planning effort and a total change to teaching pedagogies. Myself and many other colleagues throughout the country are thinking how they can make music with what resources they have, whether that be with a full suite of musical instruments, or with the contents of a student’s pencil case.   

We need Music now more than ever, and I’m ready for the challenge of the new term.  I will try to be as tolerant of SLT as I can be as I know that they don’t desire this as much as I don’t. I will try and make as much music as I possibly can, with whatever I can.  It’ll be sad to not have extra curricular music this year, which means curriculum music-making becomes more important than ever. I’ll also try to take each day as it comes. It’s certainly going to be different.  Most of all though, I’m looking forward to being at the front of the class and working with young people once again, inspiring them to be the musicians they want to be.  

Teachers are very good at adapting to an ever changing world, and to what our political masters desire of us. This will be no different.  I wish all my colleagues in music department across the country the best of luck.