Hey Daydreamer

How do you know if the children you are teaching are paying attention?

Teachers and parents of the UK 🇬🇧 rejoice your children are going back to school. But after such a long time out, how much of a attention span will they have and can teachers adapt their delivery to respond?

Legoland, Windsor has a car park at the top and the attractions at the bottom of a rather steep hill. Each year my family joke about being ‘Lego fit’. In March we struggle to walk up the hill after a busy day, by October we are running up. Same people, same hill, but what has changed? The difference is that we are able to build up our stamina during each visit until we can conquer our goals. It’s the same in the classroom, our more attentive students will be ready to sit through five one hour lessons a day, but what of those who are used to turning the camera off and going for a snack or a snooze during an online lesson? I can guarantee they will not be ‘Lego fit’.

The hill at Legoland Windsor resort is brutal

The skills of focusing and paying attention are critical to student learning. According to Piontkowski et al. [40], “Educators often talk about attention as a general mental state in which the mind focuses on some special feature of the environment. As such, attention is considered essential for learning. It is hard to believe that the student who disregards instruction will benefit from it. Thus, the teacher needs reliable signs of the student’s state of attention.”

It is challenging, however, for teachers to spot signs of student attention in large classrooms with so many students.

But as we have seen, additional challenges arise in online classrooms, which often limit teachers to watching students’ body language in video feeds, where they cannot see, for example, distractions in the students’ environment. Harder still when the camera is turned off, often due to over zealous safeguarding leads rather than a students wish not to be seen.

An area of real interest is the study on how biometrics and machine learning approaches can help teachers evaluate their students’ level of attentiveness in both physical and online classrooms and introduce appropriate interventions to improve learning outcomes.

It is worth checking the research on this. Although the field of automated attention tracking research is steadily amassing new publications, no survey works have charted the progress of research or encouraged new research. An open opportunity to explore a key area which affects pupil progress.

By focusing on key behaviors such as eye gazes, body movements or social interactions, it is possible for a teacher to measure the level of engagement in their lessons and tailor their delivery accordingly. The next few weeks will be a challenge as we all adapt to a different dynamic within our classrooms.

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.


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. 

Taking the high road… Out

T’was the week before term and whilst all my teacher friends and contacts are sweating over the return to school, I am feeling strangely relaxed. My suit is still in the dry cleaners, my board pens are somewhere in a box in the garage and my books are gathering dust on the shelf.

Don’t get me wrong, this is not a blog about how great it is to be free from the shackles of school life, although I am not going to miss the naval gazing of results analysis spreadsheets and reports or the dull hours spent listening to someone reading out a powerpoint about the latest school priorities. This a slightly cathartic attempt to explain my story and the lessons which could be learnt for everyone in the education sector about the pathways within.

Teaching in schools is a very secure and predictable environment, in my 17 year career, I have changed jobs twice, both times I handed my notice in by the middle of May, to start a new role in September, a full 15 weeks or practically 4 months later (1/3rd of the year). Previously I worked as a buyer for two firms one educational publisher and a travel firm, leaving one job on the Friday to start a new one the following Monday in a very transient working environment. There are benefits and drawbacks to both approaches, job security of course being the main advantage, I however, always felt a bit cornered, powerless to take advantage of some of the opportunities which presented themselves. Not that in reality there were many opportunities, and perhaps they were just perceived based on my ‘grass is always greener’ approach to life, but I always felt that I needed an ‘out’.

So here I am, out! I am fairly risk averse, but teaching nine different subjects across three different key stages, travelling over 2 hours to and from work every day was taking its toll. Added to 2 months off due to extensive shoulder surgery, the death of my Father and the effects of Covid-19, for my own health and well being if not the family finances it was time to be brave. I contacted my Union and requested they initiate an exit strategy, for both parties it was definitely the right course of action. So here I am, one week away from joining seemingly everyone else in the world, unemployed.

Yet I feel completely invigorated, so here is the masterplan, it will be interesting to see how many of these are ticked off before either I head off on holiday next summer, or am evicted.

Priority number one – Pay Septembers mortgage. I have registered with plenty of agencies, digging out old certificates and applying for DBS. Supply work is the priority, to make ends meet I probably need to bring home around £120-£130 a day, a quite and frighteningly tall order. I don’t actually know if any schools will take anyone on supply in the next few weeks with all this uncertainty? I guess pupils and teachers may well be hit by the French and Spanish quarantine rules? Who knows?

Priority number two – Set up a Tutoring Company. Its a mysterious world, tutoring. I hear of all these ex-teachers who have made successful transitions into tutoring, then I find out they all teach Maths! I have no idea if this will be successful or not, but I guess now is a good time to try. I will cover my experiences of setting up a company in my next blog post, but in the meantime excitingly http://www.castletutoring.com is live.

Priority Number Three – Contact schools to offer catch up sessions. Talking of opportunities, the Government is offering schools a catch up premium of £1bn towards a National Tutoring Programme, with each secondary school receiving approximately £80k. This money is for small one to one tuition and extra teaching capacity from September.

So overall, being free from a school contract has meant that I do not have the security of a monthly guaranteed wage and the ability to organise child care on a day to day basis around our work schedules, but I do have the flexibility to take on these new challenges and take advantage of the opportunities which in this post-lockdown world have presented.

Do let me know your own experiences and how this has shaped you and your career, I’d be very keen to pick up any hints and tips.