Round-up of 2014-15

Leading the way…

I have just completed my 40th year as a teacher. That might seem to some to be an anniversary worth celebrating, but as I plan to be around for some time still, I won’t overdose on champagne just yet. Looking back over the decades, I sense that I have managed to gain sufficient experience to know what works and what does not, without taking away my passion for working with children and the excitement of creating anew an education that will stand the test of time.

I am both evidence- and research-led, it must be said, born of my University education as a scientist and pragmatism as a business man. It means that a lot of what I want to happen in school must be led by the teachers and pupils for whom it means the most. I can’t expect to direct the lives of the 1500 or so in our community at the micro level, and indeed much of what I can do takes time for its impact to show through.

At the same time, I know people expect me to work hard, to share the difficult yards and muck in when help is needed. For Claires Court to be as good as we need to be for all of our children, we need to be an agile organisation, and by the very nature of such an approach, we need to travel lightly as appropriate. But keeping the baggage down does not imply a lack of expertise; far from that, our teaching and learning support staff spend a remarkable additional time each year to plan, rehearse, review and renew their curricular activities. Practice is not about making perfect, but about making permanent, and that crosses all avenues in education. The challenges we face each academic year have nasty habit of being more of the same and yet utterly new. Bullying for example stretches back in our memories to our own school days, but no way then (1960s ahem) would I expect to be pilloried 24/7 on social media that I could not escape.

If you do not already know, everything in English national assessment terms has been changed. National curriculum levels have been scrapped because long-term research identified that they had not given rise to any lasting improvement in standards. Primary school training courses now abound on assessing without levels, whilst Ofsted is making it clear that marking and assessment methods are to be changed/reduced. At secondary level, GCSEs are in turmoil, with new grading systems and ‘fatter’ English and Maths subjects coming in September 2015, the rest to follow in 2016. Out with grades A* to G, in with grades 10 to 1, with 4 (upgraded to 5 after the general election) being the equivalent of a C.

As Academic Principal of Claires Court, I am steering us clear of the turmoil. Having abandoned the National Curriculum 7 years ago, we are now pretty adept at measuring attainment, progress and effort as was independently confirmed at inspection last March – http://goo.gl/zEJnCS. Research into effective learning does not indicate the government is going to find its reforms easy to implement nor that it going to achieve the wins it expects in terms of international benchmarks against other countries. As I write (August 2015), we learnt that the Scottish Higher Maths exam (made harder by that parallel jurisdiction within the UK) has had to have its pass mark lowered to 34% from 45% to balance their books; to think that a candidate can get almost 2.3 of the paper wrong and still pass makes a mockery of what we know effective assessment looks like, that being an exercise within which a candidate can show what he knows, understands and can do.

As this edition of the Court Circular shows, life at school is not actually about assessment and examination, useful as both of these exercises are for evaluating success with learning. Education in its broadest sense is to equip children with the experiences, skills and expertise they need to lead fulfilling lives for themselves and the wider community into their future years. And Education is about having fun, being challenged, failing and falling as well as jumping and clearing the hurdles. Education is both a collaborative and solitary activity; there is a time and place for both, woven through a variety of opportunities in both public and private space. Parents are of course essential to best of practice seen in education, partly because they do often know their child better than others, and because their interest helps carry the child when interest flags.

I have become increasingly concerned that the failures in education policy have been mirrored in the provision of Child and Adolescent Mental Health services. Agreed multi-agency processes for the identification and support of children’s needs have become so bureaucratic, time-consuming and unfocused on the individual that specialist clinical interventions take far too long to implement. In response, I have appointed Everlief who have at their disposal 14 clinical psychologists and 2 Paediatricians. Dr Sue Wimshurst (pictured) is the associate now attached to Claires Court, who will be visiting six times a year to provide in-house support and advice for staff and, as appropriate, parents who have concerns. Key issues tackled this year include supporting  children and young people in emotional distress such as anxiety, stress/low self-esteem and self-harming as well as providing support guidance with parenting and family issues.

Talking of which, it’s been the greatest of privileges to work with some pretty committed parents this year, making the life of Corporate PTA, led so effectively in her own inimitable way by President Phyllis Avery MBE. Much of the success in our building of effective relationships comes from the work of our local Parent Teacher Associations, whether that be in the creation and running of social events, fund raising for much needed prizes and extras, or in the creation of yearbooks for those pupils ‘graduating’ at the end of the Summer Term. What was new this year was the ‘move’ of the PTA Summer Ball to the Ridgeway estate, selling out the planned 300 seats. That’s the kind of brilliant support that empowers our PTA Committees to continue to work so hard on all of our behalves, and I do hope new parents feel willing to step up and involve themselves in our various groups across the sites into the new Academic Year in September. There will be vacancies!

In writing this edition of the Court Circular,  I make no apology for drawing to your attention to some of the biggest blots on the current landscape we see. The publication of National League Tables in 2015 has done more disservice to the Independent sector than ever before. Over 60% of all GCSE examinations in English, Maths and Sciences which are sat within all independent  schools follow the iGCSE framework and are absolutely fit for their purpose. Not including such examinations (in our case Maths and English) in performance tables massively under-reports our effectiveness as educational institutions. When Eton College scores 0%, you know there is something really quite badly amiss. One of the reasons why independent schools have migrated their examinations to international frameworks is that continual change to the English examination programmes have brought many school teachers and departments to their knees. Currently, our secondary staff are rewriting most of our A Levels on offer, with English and Maths GCSEs on the move again from September too.  It will not be until 2019 at the very earliest that comparisons now can be drawn between subjects and pupil performance from one year to the next.

Claires Court is not just managing educational change, but helping lead it at national level. Head of Junior Girls, Miss Leanne Barlow with Mrs Lindsay King were invited to present the work we have created for our Early Years and Junior School curriculum as a model of best practice at ISA’s National Junior Schools Conference in February.  Our Head of Sixth Form, Andy Giles together with Stephanie Rogers assisted ISA in creating a separate National Conference for Sixth Forms last week.  They presented most powerfully the extraordinary work we are now doing to link academic students to the work place skills required for success at university and beyond. Head of College Paul Bevis leads one of the annual national conferences for deputy headteachers, and lectures for ISA and inspects Independent schools in addition. For my own part, this year saw me appointed as a Reporting Inspector for the Independent Schools Inspectorate, one of a select few (70 or so) who lead the inspections of the 1300+ Independent schools in England. I chair ISA’s National Professional Development Committee and have spoken at over 20 events leading educational thinking for our sector. All this activity gives us the certainty of ‘professional’ high ground – other schools and educational institutions take our work very seriously indeed!

One of the important channels by which I can inform and influence educational debate is my blog. I am not out to grab headlines, but to produce a coherent narrative of why we have a Claires Court way of doing things. After all with over 1075 children and 300+ employees, we are an important community in our own right, even before we extend it to include friends, relatives, former pupils, partner schools, businesses and fellow travellers. One of my recent posts highlighted the growing conceptual divide between government and employer hopes for education, and identifies ‘The Magnificent Seven’ ways in which a Claires Court education neatly seems to fit both bills. Please read more at www.jameswilding.wordpress.com.

That education is delivered by a truly dedicated staff in a day that runs from dawn to dusk (actually 07.30 to 18.30), longer when trips and evening events are involved, often covering 6 days a week and for a few since May, every day of the week as well. Their motivation is to ensure that the opportunities presented enable your children, young and old, to achieve the remarkable things they do. And what’s becoming ever more noticeable is just how much joy and fun is had whilst these challenges are undertaken. Said one appreciative parent as they watched their son perform at Art on the Street, “Claires Court has so much soul!”

Broader support from the key professionals we work with also leaves a special mark. Carole Hawkins, our safeguarding visitor, Helen Cole,our Careers Advisor, Rachael Williams, our counsellor from the Living Room and Paul Hay, our visitor for digital safety are all fine examples; there are few schools that give such prime attention and focus to the economic, mental and personal welfare of all of its children, whatever their age and stage. Whilst national guidance pleads with schools to attend to these matters, we have them all in hand by pioneering remarkable ways of working – Claires Court in so many ways is leading the way to model how difficult “stuff” can be done better.

Our wider partners, most notably Rotary International, Samsung Enterprise, Discovery Education and the Independent Schools Association recognise the difference that collaboration with Claires Court brings. It’s not just that we see eye to eye where our interests overlap, but that our vision is genuinely inclusive; everyone we work with matters, each child has value and we adjust and adapt for that. As a consequence, our partners feel their effort is that much more worthwhile, because at Claires Court it reaches everyone, not just a favoured few.  Of course schools are dynamic places – things go as easily wrong as right. Our get-go is not about self-aggrandising advancement, but a genuine and deeply felt wish to work with our partners so everyone succeeds. Art on the Street and Maidenhead’s Got Talent are two of the many showcases we support, clear demonstrations that the best of Claires Court is indeed the very, very best, while giving room for those who simply want to have a go; to be an enthusiast is enough!

And you don’t just have my word for this; the reputation of the School now takes our message to the wider world. Our website and the several editions of the Court Circular capture the highlights in impressive detail, while our Facebook and Twitter channels come alive most days with news of derring-do and joyful engagement. Our Former Pupils’ group is now firmly up and running, with Rugby, West End and Cricket fixtures rolled out in recent months. We even have an inaugral Annual Alumni dinner planned for Saturday 19 September at the Senior Boys School – bookings can now be made via Eventbrite at https://goo.gl/mfeviu.

And finally, what of the academic landscape that lies ahead for our children over the next 12 to 18 months? We have a Conservative administration for 5 years, determined to cut back the deficit and return us to national prosperity. For state education that means some of the toughest belt tightening ever seen as budgets fail to match the increasing numbers of children, and because government is increasing its take from employment via higher national insurance contributions and employer pension contributions. The offer for state secondary pupils is being dramatically narrowed to 8 core subjects (look out for Progress8), so the notion of a 21st century renaissance learner has been struck dead. With post 19 further education and training almost a zero entry in coming budget plans, it’s very much down to schools to make it all happen by age 18.

If ever there was a time when Claires Court’s value-added was visible that time is now. For every child and every family, there is something going on for them to be involved in, to support and participate to the full. Thank you to the 264 parents who completed the Annual Parental Questionnaire, spread in proportion to the numbers found in each age and stage on each site. Both Hugh and I value hugely the time parents take to give us feedback, because it is through receiving advice and guidance from you that we can develop the School further for the future. The vast majority of the feedback was incredibly positive, with only six parents (equally spread across the three schools) whose overarching feelings for the School are not positive. Your opinions on progress, behaviour, academic and co-curricular provision, reports and feedback and perhaps above all, child’s happiness are really very supportive indeed.  Of course unhappy customers is not what we want, and we still have areas to address. Even then, I can see that the other major success story is in the manner in which we have improved the effectiveness and communications between the School and parents, even when in the ‘soup’. How that has been enabled is largely down to our hard working office teams – and they deserve my final very big ‘thank you’.

James Wilding

About jameswilding

Academic Principal Claires Court Schools Long term member & advocate of the Independent Schools Association
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